NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter set a new flight distance record on Mars

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter (technically a rotorcraft) has made dozens of tiny aerial jaunts across Mars since first arriving on the planet in February 2021, but its latest flight set a new record for the tiny aircraft. On December 21, NASA reported Ingenuity’s 69th flight was also its farthest, according to its flight log—over 135 seconds, the four-pound, 19-inch-tall helicopter traveled roughly 2,315 feet at a speed of nearly 22.5 mph, beating its previous distance of about 2,310 feet achieved in April 2022.

As impressive as Ingenuity’s most recent flight already is, the trip went even better than originally expected. According to NASA’s Flight 69 preview log, the agency estimated its helicopter to journey about 2,304 feet over 131 seconds.

[Related: Name a better duo than NASA’s hard-working Mars rover and helicopter.]

In total, Ingenuity has so far spent 125.5 minutes aloft to fly nearly 10.5 miles across the surface at altitudes as high as almost 80 feet. While chugging along, the helicopter snaps images of the ground beneath it to send back home to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) team overseeing the program in California. As Digital Trends notes, the visual aids have so far helped NASA engineers plot efficient, safe paths for the project’s Perseverance rover. In some instances, photographs even revealed new nearby geologic formations that the rover then detoured to explore.

Ingenuity long surpassed its original estimated lifespan, even without taking its latest feats into consideration. When first launched back in 2021, NASA expected the aircraft to only last for 5 flights in order to test avionic capabilities in the thin Martian air (just 1 percent of Earth’s atmosphere), and had no intention of utilizing it as a major component in the overall Perseverance mission.

It hasn’t all been smooth flying for Ingenuity, however. Back in May 2022, the helicopter briefly went dark after a seasonal increase in atmospheric dust prevented its solar arrays from fully recharging. Thankfully, engineers sorted out the situation and reestablished communications with their rotorcraft. Now, after nearly 14 times more trips than first intended under its wings, Ingenuity doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.

[Related: Why NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter briefly went dark on Mars.]

Now that the helicopter exceeded NASA’s hopes, the agency believes similar, more advanced iterations could be deployed during future Mars missions, and perhaps even other locales throughout the solar system. For now, however, it’s one day at a time for Ingenuity—its 70th flight is also tentatively scheduled for this week.