NASA’s Mars helicopter nailed its 10th flight – double what engineers had hoped Ingenuity would do

Mars ingenuity helicopter nasa perseverance rover
The Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, sitting where the Perseverance rover dropped it, on April 5, 2021.

  • NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter completed its 10th flight on Mars Saturday.
  • That’s twice the number of flights that NASA originally planned for the little drone.
  • Engineers thought Ingenuity would crash much earlier, but it’s now on an extended mission.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The “little helicopter that could” has done it again.

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, a tissue-box-sized rotorcraft that landed with the Perseverance rover in February, completed its 10th flight over the red planet on Saturday.

Each Ingenuity flight has been more daring than the last. So Saturday’s flight was likely the helicopter’s riskiest yet: If everything went according to plan, Ingenuity climbed 40 feet in the air, then headed south-by-southwest toward a collection of rock features called “Raised Ridges,” before looping back around to a landing zone about 310 feet west of its initial takeoff spot.

Before Saturday, Ingenuity had already flown nearly one mile in total, so its 10th flight helped it hit that threshold.

The flight should have lasted about 2 minutes, 45 seconds. During that time, Ingenuity is expected to have visited 10 distinct waypoints, snapping photos along the way.

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An annotated image of Mars’ Jezero Crater depicts the ground track and waypoints for Ingenuity’s 10th flight.

Flight 10 is a significant milestone, since Ingenuity has now flown twice as many times as NASA engineers originally planned. NASA expected Ingenuity to crash on its fourth or fifth flight as it tested the limits of its speed and stamina.

But Ingenuity has continued to exceed expectations. Even when a glitch led the helicopter to wobble mid-air in May during its sixth flight, it still managed to touch down safely.

The drone started out as a technology demonstration, but NASA gave Ingenuity a secondary mission in late May after its fourth flight. Since then, Ingenuity has started scouting new Martian terrain and testing operations that NASA might want to conduct with future space helicopters. In its recent flights, Ingenuity has explored unsurveyed areas of Mars’ Jezero Crater – a 28-mile-wide impact basin that was filled with water about 3.5 billion years ago – landing in new spots each time.

The uneven landscape is a challenge for Ingenuity, since rocky or rippled land can distort its field of view, causing it to veer in the wrong direction. Ingenuity’s ninth flight earlier this month was a “nail-biter,” NASA scientists said, since the helicopter had to cross over particularly treacherous terrain.

Ingenuity helicopter mars first flight Taking Off and Landing
The Perseverance rover captured footage of Ingenuity taking off and landing for its first flight on April 19, 2021.

Ingenuity is still proving itself useful on Mars, but its future is uncertain

In Ingenuity’s first four flights, the rotorcraft landed in the same spot it lifted off. Its fifth flight led it to touch down in a new airfield that it had previously flown over, photographed, and mapped. But these recent flights have sent Ingenuity traveling south over uncharted territory.

NASA engineers haven’t said when Ingenuity’s mission will end, but the helicopter could keep flying as long as it stays alive and doesn’t interfere with the science work of the Perseverance rover.

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Ingenuity captured a photo of its shadow during its seventh flight on Mars.

Perseverance is combing Jezero Crater in search of potential fossils of ancient alien microbes. Ingenuity’s new operations can assist with that mission: The helicopter can scout and map terrain, spot promising areas for study from the air, and fly to spots the rover can’t reach.

NASA scientists are particularly curious about “Raised Ridges,” since water may have once flowed there. During its ninth flight, Ingenuity also snapped color images of intriguing rock outcrops that Perseverance might examine later.

“We’re hoping the color images will provide the closest look yet at ‘Pilot Pinnacle,’ a location featuring outcrops that some team members think may record some of the deepest water environments in old Lake Jezero,” NASA scientists wrote in a recent blog post.

It’s possible, though, that Perseverance’s tight schedule won’t allow it to visit the rocks, “so Ingenuity may offer the only opportunity to study these deposits in any detail,” the scientists said.

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NASA’s Mars helicopter has now flown successfully 8 times, beaming back photos that look like a sci-fi film

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The Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, sitting where the Perseverance rover dropped it, April 5, 2021.

On Monday, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter completed its eighth flight on Mars.

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The Perseverance rover captured the Ingenuity helicopter before (left) and after (right) spinning its rotor blades.

The 4-pound helicopter spun its two pairs of blades to lift itself more than 30 feet above the ochre Martian dust. At a speed of 9 mph, it zipped to a new landing spot 525 feet away.

The tissue-box-sized space drone has come a long way since the Perseverance rover dropped it onto the Martian surface in April.

NASA Perseverance
The Perseverance rover took a selfie with Ingenuity before its first flight in April.

The pair of robots landed in Mars’ Jezero Crater on February 18.

Ingenuity was meant to conduct up to five test flights in order to prove that helicopters could fly over and explore Mars. The demo chopper has far exceeded engineers’ expectations.

Ingenuity made history on April 19 when it took flight for the first time. It hovered 10 feet above the Martian surface for about 30 seconds.

Ingenuity helicopter mars first flight Taking Off and Landing
Mastcam-Z, an imager aboard the Perseverance rover, captured Ingenuity taking off and landing for its first flight on April 19, 2021.

It was the first powered, controlled flight ever conducted on another planet.

A camera on the Perseverance rover captured the flight in exquisite color.

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The Perseverance rover captured Ingenuity’s first flight on Mars, April 19, 2021.

Perseverance moved to a nearby overlook to photograph and film the event.

Ingenuity snapped its own photos, too, using a color camera on the bottom of the helicopter.

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Ingenuity photographed its own shadow on April 9, 2021.

The camera is mounted on Ingenuity’s fuselage, and it points about 22 degrees below the horizon. That allows the lens to capture some of the Martian landscape in the distance as Ingenuity flies.

A black-and-white navigation camera also captures images as the chopper flies.

ingenuity helicopter shadow on martian ground black and white
Ingenuity photographed its own shadow just above the Martian surface – along with some tracks from the Perseverance rover – during its third flight, April 25, 2021.

That camera points straight down, allowing the helicopter to map where it is above the Martian surface.

Ingenuity’s color camera captured mid-flight photos of Perseverance’s tracks in the dust below.

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Ingenuity photographed Perseverance’s tracks, and its own shadow, during its second flight, April 22, 2021.

The photo above is the first color image taken from an aerial vehicle flying on Mars.

The camera even spotted Perseverance during Ingenuity’s third flight.

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NASA’s Perseverance rover is visible in the upper-left corner of this image from Ingenuity’s third flight on Mars, April 25, 2021.

During that flight, Ingenuity zipped about 160 feet down its flight zone, then returned, at 4.5 mph.

Perseverance watched Ingenuity’s first five flights, then drove away to start on its own science mission: searching for signs of ancient alien life.

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A zoomed-in view of Perseverance from the photo Ingenuity captured during its third flight.

Perseverance is now exploring the deposits left behind by a lake that once filled Jezero Crater. Scientists think that this lake may have hosted microbial life 3.5 billion years ago. Sediment falling to the lake bottom may have trapped and fossilized some of those microbes — if they existed.

Perseverance aims to collect dozens of soil samples from the lake bed, the nearby river delta, and the shorelines. It will stash those samples for a future mission to carry back to Earth.

Before moving on, Perseverance captured video footage of Ingenuity’s flights. Its microphone even picked up the sound of the helicopter’s spinning blades.

To get the helicopter off the ground in Mars’ thin atmosphere, Ingenuity’s rotors have to spin at 2,500 revolutions per minute. That’s five times as fast as the blades of a helicopter on Earth.

Meanwhile, Ingenuity’s navigation camera snapped photos throughout each flight, which combine to offer stop-motion-style footage of its shadow traveling over Martian ground.

Ingenuity helicopter flight shadow moving over mars
NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter took these images on its fourth Mars flight, on April 30, 2021, using its black-and-white navigation camera.

“Goosebumps — it looks just the way we had tested,” MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity project manager, said as she presented video of Ingenuity’s first flight at a press conference in April. “Absolutely beautiful flight — I don’t think I can ever stop watching it over and over again.”

Ingenuity carried out its first three flights so flawlessly that NASA gave it a new, extended mission.

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NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter mid-air on April 22, 2021.

For as long as it survives, the Ingenuity team decided, the helicopter will keep flying to new airfields. That way, it can test operations that NASA might want to conduct with future space helicopters. That includes scouting and mapping, observing interesting features of Mars from the air, and exploring rough terrain that rovers can’t access.

Over eight flights, the helicopter has pushed itself further, faster, and higher. It has landed safely in uncharted territory three times.

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Ingenuity’s color camera captured the ground below in sharp detail during a flight on May 7, 2021.

NASA engineers initially did not think they could fly Ingenuity higher than 16 feet, but the helicopter has reached heights of about 33 feet. It’s traveled as far as 873 feet in a single flight and moved as fast as 9 mph.

It’s hopped to four new airfields — three of which were unsurveyed.

Ingenuity even survived a mid-air error. During its sixth flight, a glitch made the helicopter tilt wildly back and forth.

nasa ingenuity helicopter photographs mars during sixth flight
Ingenuity took this image of Mars from 33 feet in the air during its sixth flight, May 22, 2021.

About 54 seconds into the flight, a small glitch occured as the navigation camera sent images to the helicopter’s computer. The chopper lost just one image, but that meant that each following photo was delivered with the wrong timestamp.

The error made Ingenuity roll and pitch, leaning more than 20 degrees from one side to the other. But it still managed to land safely.

Ingenuity helicopter tilt footage during sixth flight
This sequence of images – taken on May 22, 2021 by Ingenuity’s navigation camera – depicts the last 29 seconds of the rotorcraft’s sixth flight, when it began tilting back and forth.

“While we did not intentionally plan such a stressful flight, NASA now has flight data probing the outer reaches of the helicopter’s performance envelope,” Håvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot, wrote in a blog update on the incident.

NASA expected Ingenuity to crash long ago, but it still has more flights ahead.

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NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter, photographed on Mars by the Perseverance rover’s rear Hazard Camera on April 4, 2021.

Perseverance scientist Ken Farley told a NASA group on Monday that he expects Ingenuity’s new mission to continue for a few more months, according to SpaceNews reporter Jeff Foust.

That would keep up the current rate of about two flights per month. In the future, more advanced helicopters may even work alongside astronauts on Mars.

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NASA’s Mars helicopter will attempt a perilous landing in unknown territory during its first ‘bonus’ flight this week

ingenuity helicopter mars
NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter, photographed on Mars by the Perseverance rover on April 4, 2021.

A month ago, NASA was preparing to sacrifice its Mars helicopter in the name of science.

Ingenuity was designed to soar five times over the Martian surface as a technology demonstration. With each flight, NASA engineers were pushing the 4-pound rotorcraft as far and fast as it would go, so they anticipated that it would eventually crash.

But time and again, Ingenuity wasn’t felled – not by the strong Martian winds, clouds of copper dust, or other challenges to its mechanics and navigation system. So by the end of April, NASA announced that it would extend the helicopter’s life on Mars.

Ingenuity has now embarked on a new, secondary mission to scout out Martian terrain and test operations that NASA might want to conduct with future space helicopters. That includes exploring rough areas that rovers can’t access, observing interesting features of Mars from the air, and snapping photos for elevation maps.

Ingenuity is scheduled to complete its first “bonus” flight – the helicopter’s sixth flight in total – within the next few days. The excursion will require more precise maneuvering and aerial observations than any of Ingenuity’s previous flights, making it the drone’s riskiest voyage yet.

During its first four flights, Ingenuity returned to the same landing spot, which NASA dubbed Wright Brothers Field. But it’s now making one-way trips to different areas.

Ingenuity’s fifth flight took it to a new spot in Mars’ Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide impact basin that was filled with water about 3.5 billion years ago. The helicopter had scouted out the location during a previous flight.

This week’s flight will be the first time Ingenuity touches down at an area that it didn’t previously survey.

NASA’s only information about that new landing spot, called “Field C,” comes from images collected by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. These suggest the area is relatively flat and boulder-free, making it a safe place to land.

The plan is for Ingenuity to spend 140 seconds above the Martian surface – the longest it has ever been airborne – moving at a speed of 9 miles per hour. Ingenuity should also soar 33 feet in the air, an altitude it reached during its fifth flight, which NASA engineers previously thought impossible for the little drone.

From there, it’s programmed to head southwest for about 492 feet then move about 50 to 66 feet south. Along the way, Ingenuity should capture images of bright Martian outcrops and sand ripples. After that, the chopper is set to fly about 164 feet northeast before touching down at Field C.

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NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter can be seen hovering during its third flight on April 25, 2021.

‘Ingenuity is not going to land gently’

At this point, every one of Ingenuity’s landings is challenging.

“Note that Ingenuity is not going to land gently – it will attempt to fly in winds as high as 22 mph,” Bob Balaram, Ingenuity’s chief engineer, and Jeremy Tyler, an aeromechanical engineer at AeroVironment, wrote in a coauthored post for NASA.

ingenuity second flight mars helicopter
The Perseverance rover captured a photo of Ingenuity in mid-air during its second flight on April 22, 2021.

“Our strategy for landing in windy conditions is to come down with authority, placing Ingenuity’s feet firmly on the ground so that it won’t drift across the surface of Mars and snag a foot on a rock,” they said.

The helicopter’s suspension system is designed to cushion its touchdown on the Martian surface. But it’s still possible that the rotorcraft could tip over and land on its side, which would damage the blades, effectively ending Ingenuity’s mission.

“We hope we will be flying over unsurveyed terrains and, over time, continuing to transfer to airfields that are not well characterized. So there is a higher probability of bad landing,” MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity project manager, said in a recent briefing.

Even before Ingenuity’s new mission, Aung repeatedly said that a bad landing could end the chopper’s flights. So far, however, the helicopter continues to exceed expectations.

Ingenuity’s fate is tied to the Perseverance rover

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NASA extended Ingenuity’s mission by 30 days on April 30, so the mission isn’t guaranteed to continue next month. But the drone could keep flying longer, as long as it stays alive and doesn’t interfere with the science work of the Perseverance rover, which carried Ingenuity to Mars.

“We’re in a kind of see-how-it-goes phase,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said last month.

Perseverance has begun its main mission on the red planet: hunting for fossils of ancient alien microbes.

For now, that work is taking place near the helicopter, since Ingenuity must communicate with NASA through the rover.

NASA’s initial plan called for Perseverance to travel farther from its landing spot in the Jezero Crater than it has by now. But then the rover photographed some promising rocks that convinced NASA scientists to further investigate the immediate region.

“These rocks are likely to be mudstones, very fine grained, once mud on the bottom of the lake,” Perseverance scientist Ken Farley said in a briefing last month. “These are very important for our investigation, because this is the kind of environment that we expect to be the most habitable by organisms that might have existed on Mars billions of years ago.”

Morgan McFall-Johnsen contributed reporting.

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The Ingenuity Mars helicopter’s blades are spinning ahead of its first flight – making the NASA team ‘nervous and excited’

mars ingenuity helicopter rotor blades spin
The Perseverance rover photographed the Ingenuity helicopter before (left) and after (right) it spun its rotor blades.

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter is charging up and spinning its blades in preparation to fly above the Martian surface.

The 4-pound drone is set to lift off early on Monday, rise 10 feet above the dusty red ground of Mars’ Jezero Crater, then gently touch back down. The entire flight should last about 40 seconds, but it could forever change the way NASA explores other planets.

Future Mars helicopters could scout out canyons and mountains that rovers can’t access, fly in and out of craters, or even do reconnaissance for astronauts.

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Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung speaks at a press conference on February 16, 2021.

As for Ingenuity, if its first flight goes well, the rotorcraft will attempt up to four increasingly difficult sojourns into the thin Martian air after that.

“Each world gets only one first flight,” MiMi Aung, the project manager for Ingenuity, said in a briefing on Friday. “The Wright brothers achieved the first flight on Earth. Ingenuity is poised to go for being the first on Mars.”

The $85 million chopper has completed most of its system checkouts, and its solar panels are absorbing enough energy to power its flight. It spun its blades for the first time on Thursday, though that spin was much slower than it will need to be for flight – 50 rotations per minute instead of 2,400.

“So far so good, knock on wood,” Aung said.

Late on Friday, the helicopter is set to test out a full-speed spin.

Meanwhile, the Perseverance rover, which carried Ingenuity to the red planet, has driven to an outlook about 210 feet away. From its perch, the rover is ready to watch and record footage as its helicopter stowaway takes flight.

But nobody is sure Ingenuity will succeed. So as flight day approaches, the engineers behind the helicopter are anticipating the moment of truth when they’ll find out. Ingenuity will conduct its entire flight autonomously, and it takes at least 8 minutes for a signal from Mars to travel to Earth, and vice versa. So once the process begins, the Ingenuity team can only bite their nails and wait for the signal of success.

NASA Perseverance
Perseverance took a selfie with Ingenuity on April 6, 2021.

“I’m feeling a lot of emotions,” Josh Ravich, who leads Ingenuity’s mechanics teams, told Insider. “A lot of the team, myself included, are very hesitant to celebrate prematurely. So even as we’re making really exciting milestones, getting prepared for first flight, we’re still holding our enthusiasm until that flight happens.”

The feeling extends to NASA’s leaders, too.

“We’re all kind of a little bit nervous and excited at the same time,” Thomas Zurbuchen, the agency’s associate administrator for science, told Insider. “We’re all ready, but we’ll all feel better when it’s done – and successful.”

Flying through air thinner than on the top of Mount Everest

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If the full-speed spin test goes well, NASA expects Ingenuity to fly around 3:30 a.m. ET on Monday. That will be about 12:30 p.m. on Mars’ Jezero Crater, when the sun is bright. NASA expects winds to be helicopter-friendly at that time, too.

Even if conditions are perfect, though, flying on Mars is tough. The air there has just 1% the density of Earth’s atmosphere, making Ingenuity’s task the equivalent of flying three times higher than the peak of Mount Everest. To catch enough lift with so few molecules to push against, the helicopter’s two pairs of blades will have to spin in opposite directions at a speed roughly eight times faster than a passenger helicopter on Earth.

“There were some people who doubted we could generate enough lift to fly in that thin Martian atmosphere,” Amiee Quon, who tested Ingenuity in a Mars-simulation chamber on Earth, said in the Friday briefing.

It worked in the test chamber, but flying on Mars is a different story.

“There are four possible outcomes. The first is for success. Second, partial success. Third could be insufficient or no data coming back, which means we’ll have to take more time to figure out what’s happened. Or it could be failure,” Aung said.

‘High-risk, high-reward’

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The Perseverance surface-operations team celebrates the rover’s landing from their mission-control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, February 18, 2021.

Because Ingenuity is a demonstration of technology that’s never been used on Mars before, it’s “high-risk, high-reward,” according to Zurbuchen.

“There’s a lot of a lot of things that could certainly go wrong, I guess, besides crashing or not working at all. You can imagine 1,000 ways that either of those things could happen,” Ravich said.

The worst-case scenario, he added, is that Ingenuity doesn’t get off the ground at all. Even if it flies a little bit and crashes, the team could potentially salvage data from the robot and learn lessons for future space helicopters.

If the rotorcraft does fly and land smoothly, even just for this first flight, Ingenuity could revolutionize the way NASA investigates other planets.

“Suppose that it does, in fact, work. What we will have proven is that we can add an aerial dimension to discovery and exploration on Mars,” Zurbuchen said. “That aerial dimension, of course, opens up aspects of science and overall exploration that, frankly, at this moment in time, are only our dreams.”

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‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Bot’: NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover is snapping remarkable new selfies

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Perseverance photographed its own cameras.

NASA’s Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter are having some fun on Mars ahead of the rotorcraft’s highly anticipated first liftoff.

That flight, which could pioneer a new method of planetary exploration, is scheduled to take place early Monday morning, around 3:30 a.m. ET. So before clearing the area, Perseverance co-starred in a selfie with the tiny helicopter.

The selfie is actually a mosaic of 62 individual images taken on Tuesday. Citizen scientist Seán Doran stitched the photos together and adjusted the brightness to create a stunning composite.

NASA Perseverance
Perseverance stares back at the Ingenuity helicopter.

Perseverance also snapped a solo shot – this time a single image – on Tuesday that offers a close-up look at the remote-sensing mast on the end of its robotic arm (the part that functions as a selfie stick).

NASA cheekily titled that photo “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Bot,” a reference to James Joyce’s novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”

The rover’s rotating arm is perfect for selfie-taking

Perseverance is equipped with 23 cameras. Some help the rover navigate Martian terrain, spotting potential hazards like large rocks or trenches. Others allow human operators on Earth to check that the rover’s parts are in good shape.

The rover’s two newest selfies were taken by WATSON, a wide-angle sensor that captures the texture and structure of Martian rocks in fine detail. Since it’s attached to Perseverance’s robotic arm, the camera can rotate to snap photos of the rover itself.

Perseverance selfie
Perseverance rotates its robotic arm.

“Portrait of the Artist as a Young Bot” also showcases the rover’s 23-pound SuperCam, which can fire a laser at areas smaller than 1 millimeter from more than 20 feet (about 7 meters) away. The heat from the laser turns the rock to plasma, which researchers can then analyze to learn more about Mars’ composition.

Just below the SuperCam is a pair of rectangular cameras called Mastcam-Z. Their powerful zoom lenses can record video and snap three-dimensional and color images.

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The remote-sensing mast at the end of the rover’s robotic arm.

A mission to uncover ancient life on Mars

Perseverance touched down on Mars in February carrying Ingenuity in its belly. The helicopter fully separated from its host on Saturday and is now positioned about 13 feet (nearly 4 meters) away from the rover. Both are in an ancient lake bed called Jezero Crater.

The location is ideal for hunting for alien fossils: NASA scientists suspect that if fossilized microbes exist on Mars, they could be trapped in clay mineral deposits along the crater’s dried-up lake bottom, shorelines, and river delta. Perseverance’s mission is to examine and collect rocks to see whether that’s the case.

Ingenuity, meanwhile, is a technology demonstration: The 4-pound helicopter – roughly the size of a tissue box – will attempt up to five flights, each more difficult than the last.

The first flight will just test whether Ingenuity can successfully get a few feet off the ground, hover for about 30 seconds, then touch back down. If all goes well, the final flight could carry the helicopter over 980 feet (300 meters) of Martian terrain.

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Ingenuity extends vertically into place after being rotated outward from its horizontal position on March 29.

To be successful, Ingenuity must fly in Mars’ thin atmosphere and survive frigid temperatures for 30 Martian days (about one Earth month). Nighttime temperatures on Mars can plunge as low as negative-130 degrees Fahrenheit.

So far, the helicopter has made it almost a week since it dropped onto the Martian surface. Ingenuity now has to finish testing its sensors and motors before it’s ready to fly.

Morgan McFall-Johnsen contributed reporting.

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NASA’s Perseverance rover just went for its first drive on Mars, then spotted its own wheel tracks in the dirt

perseverance rover mars first drive tracks nasa
NASA’s Perseverance rover captures its own wheel tracks during its first drive on Mars, on March 4, 2021.

NASA’s Perseverance rover left its footprints on Mars on Thursday after going for its first drive. The jaunt proved the vehicle can make its way around the red planet.

Since Perseverance landed in Mars’ Jezero Crater on February 18, it has been calibrating its instruments and upgrading software. In this initial drive, Perseverance moved about 13 feet (4 meters) from its landing spot, made a 150-degree turn to the left, and backed up about 8 feet (2.5 meters) – a routine that it “executed perfectly,” according to NASA engineer Anais Zarifian.

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Visualization software shows the Perseverance rover’s first drive on Mars on March 4, 2021.

As it drove, the rover’s navigation cameras snapped photos of its tracks in the dirt behind it.

“Our first drive went incredibly well,” Zarifian, who works on the rover’s mobility team, said in a press briefing on Friday. “I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to see wheel tracks, and I’ve seen a lot of them.”

perseverance mars rover wheel tracks first drive nasa
One of Perseverance’s Hazard Avoidance Cameras captured this image as the rover completed a short traverse and turn from its landing site on March 4, 2021.

The team has another, longer drive planned  for the rover late on Friday, and is hoping for yet another on Saturday.

“So many people I can’t even count have worked towards this very moment for years,” Zarifian said. “It’s just amazing to see. I don’t think the team could’ve been happier.”

Life in the fast lane

Perseverance spent seven months flying through space to reach Mars. Since its landing, it has been adjusting to Mars life, getting its space legs, and preparing for its mission: to spend at least two years scouring an ancient Martian lake bed for signs of fossilized alien microbes. Perseverance is equipped to trek across Martian cliffs and dunes, and to collect up to 43 samples of Martian rock and dirt for a future mission to bring back to Earth.

The rover is better prepared for the rugged Martian terrain than any vehicle before it. Because of the Jezero Crater’s watery past, the area is rich with scientific potential, but NASA didn’t have the technology to explore it until now. Perseverance will have to navigate boulder fields, sand dunes, and cliffs hundreds of feet tall. It may even climb the crater rim in a few years.

It can do this thanks to its six titanium wheels, which each have their own motor. The wheels are narrower and their metal is thicker than on previous rovers, and each is lined with 48 cleats. That makes the wheels more resistant to the sharp rocks that tore holes in the wheels of Perseverance’s predecessor, Curiosity.

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The Perseverance rover wiggles one of its wheels in a set of images obtained by its left Navigation Camera on March 4, 2021.

The rover can’t rotate those wheels while it’s driving, though – it has to stop whenever it needs to change direction. At its fastest, the rover moves at 0.1 miles per hour.

Still, in terms of miles it can cover per day, Perseverance drives about five times faster than Curiosity. That’s because the rover’s computers can process images and navigate while it drives. So it doesn’t have to pause for calculations every time it sees a new obstacle.

“‘Perseverance can walk and chew gum at the same time,’ is the phrase we like to use,” Zarifian said. “Which means more time to do science.”

Perseverance is at a crossroads

NASA’s Perseverance engineers and scientists are already planning routes for the rover to travel in order to reach the the river delta that once fed Lake Jezero.

They’ve picked two potential paths. The counterclockwise route, going north, has easier terrain, but the southern route would take Perseverance past some mineral deposits left over from the river delta.

“We’re working with engineers now to determine which path is most efficient and safest and most scientifically interesting for the rover to explore,” Katie Stack Morgan, the mission’s deputy project scientist, said in the briefing.

nasa perseverance rover jezero crater delta route path plans
Two possible routes (blue and purple) that NASA’s Perseverance rover could take to the fan-shaped deposit of sediment that was once a river delta. The yellow line marks a potential path to explore the Jezero delta.

Both paths would end below the delta’s 200-foot-tall cliffs. From there, the team aims to climb the rover up to the ancient river’s mouth.

But before Perseverance starts on either path, it has a major task to complete. In the spring, the rover is scheduled to drop the first-ever interplanetary helicopter out of its belly – a four-pound drone called Ingenuity. The small rotocraft will then attempt up to five test flights while Perseverance’s cameras look on.

Then the rover will turn its lenses toward the cliffs, put those wheels to work, and begin its hunt for signs of alien life.

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Stunning photos from NASA’s new Mars rover reveal 200-foot cliffs, mysterious rocks, and a perfect touchdown

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An artist’s illustration shows NASA’s Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter on Mars.

NASA’s Perseverance rover hasn’t started roaming the red planet just yet, but its cameras have been busy at work.

A suite of ruggedized, off-the-shelf sports cameras captured unprecedented footage of the rover descending to Mars and landing in Jezero Crater on Thursday. Then the rover’s science and navigation cameras began snapping away as soon as it was on the ground. The results are breathtaking.

So far, NASA has published more than 4,700 images from the rover, with many more to come.

“It’s been a firehose of data,” Justin Maki, a Perseverance imaging scientist and the chief of the instrument-operations team, said in a press conference on Monday.

The new photos reveal the sand dunes, rocks, and distant 200-foot-tall cliffs of the ancient lake bed where Perseverance now sits. It’s the most hazardous terrain any Mars landing has ever targeted, but it’s already paying off in unprecedented portraits of the red planet.

“I review images for Mars, like, every day. That’s what I do. And when I saw these images come down, I have to say, I was truly amazed,” Maki said. “I know it’s been a tough year for everybody, and we’re hoping that maybe these images will help brighten people’s day.”

After landing on Thursday, NASA’s Perseverance rover immediately started beaming back thousands of photos of the red planet.

perseverance rover mars landing first color images photo jezero crater
The first high-resolution, color image sent back by the Hazard Cameras (Hazcams) on the underside of Perseverance.

These include the first-ever images of a rover landing on Mars. Five cameras captured more than 23,000 images during Perseverance’s descent.

perseverance mars rover landing photo
A photo of NASA’s Perseverance rover just feet above the Martian surface – part of a video several cameras recorded of the landing on February 18, 2021.

NASA has also released a three-minute video of the rover’s descent and landing. Watch it and read more here.

The cameras started recording as the capsule carrying the rover deployed a 70-foot-wide parachute to slow its fall through the Martian atmosphere.

mars perseverance rover descent landing parachute deploy nasa
A camera mounted to the Perseverance rover’s entry capsule captured this image of the parachute deploying.

Hidden in the parachute’s pattern is binary computer code spelling out the message “Dare mighty things.”

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A screengrab from the new video shows the Perseverance capsule’s parachute deploying.

When the bottom panel of the capsule fell away, that exposed a camera on the bottom of the rover, which captured Jezero Crater below.

perseverance mars rover landing capsule heat shield jettison deploy video screengrab
A screengrab from Perseverance’s landing video shows the heat shield falling away, exposing a camera on the rover’s belly as it descends to Mars.

In this ancient lake bed, Perseverance is set to hunt for signs of ancient alien microbes that could be fossilized there, especially along the river delta that once filled the crater with water.

nasa perseverance mars rover landing video jezero crater
A screengrab from the Perseverance rover’s descent and landing video shows Jezero Crater, with the 200-foot cliffs of its river delta on the right.

Read more about Jezero Crater and its potential for alien life here.

All these images had to be color corrected. Here’s what they looked like before that.

mars perseverance rover descent landing jezero crater river delta no color correction
A camera on the bottom of NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover acquired this image during descent on February 18, 2021. It has not been color corrected.

During the landing, the capsule dropped the rover, and then a jetpack attached to Perseverance’s back fired its engines and flew to the landing site. There, it lowered the rover on 25-foot nylon cables.

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A camera on top of Perseverance captured the jetpack lowering the rover to its landing spot.

As it approached, the jetpack’s engines kicked up swirling clouds of dust on the Martian surface.

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A screengrab from the rover’s descent-camera video shows dust swirling below as the rover is about to touch down.

Then the jetpack released the rover and flew away to crash-land at a safe distance.

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After delivering Perseverance to its touchdown, the jetpack releases the nylon cable and flies away.

Before the dust settled, the rover was already beaming back its first photos from the Martian surface.

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The first (left) and second (right) images that Perseverance took seconds after landing on Mars, February 18, 2021.

The first images revealed some very holey rocks that got NASA scientists excited. The rocks could be volcanic, or water could have tunneled through them.

perseverance mars rover wheel rocks holey rock jezero crater landing
One of Perseverance’s color Hazard Cameras (Hazcams) captured this image of one of the rover’s six aluminum wheels after its landing on February 18, 2021.

Over the weekend, NASA engineers instructed Perseverance to deploy its mast. That gave a much better view of both the landscape and the rover.

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A screengrab from a NASA press conference showing a color-approximated version of a Navcam photo of the rover’s body.

The rover’s Mastcam-Z camera, named for its powerful zoom lens, used a color wheel built into the rover to calibrate itself.

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“We’re going to get incredibly high-resolution photos from this imaging system,” Maki said.

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NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover acquired this image using a Mastcam-Z camera, located high on the rover’s mast.

High on its mast, Perseverance’s Navcam camera can see everything. It will help the rover drive.

perseverance rover mars navcam photo jezero crater screengrab
A screengrab from a NASA press conference shows a color-approximated version of a Navcam photo, looking south.

To the west of the rover, the Navcam can see the cliffs of the river delta on the horizon. That’s where the rover is headed.

perseverance rover mars navcam jezero crater river delta cliffs screengrab
A screengrab from a NASA press conference shows a color-approximated version of a Navcam photo looking west toward the river delta cliffs.

The Perseverance team on Earth stitched six of those images together to create a 360-degree panorama.

perseverance mars rover panorama jezero crater nasa
This panorama, taken on February 20, 2021, by the Navigation Cameras on the Perseverance Mars rover, was stitched together from six individual images.

NASA turned that panorama into a video that you can drag left and right to see the view from Perseverance’s perspective.

 

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For the first time, we have an audio recording from the surface of Mars – take a listen

perseverance rover mars landing first color images photo jezero crater
The first high-resolution, color image sent back by the Hazard Cameras on NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover after its landing on February 18, 2021.

For the first time in history, we have an audio recording from the surface of another planet. 

NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars Thursday, using a jetpack to maneuver to a safe spot in the 28-mile-wide Jezero Crater. On Saturday, microphones attached to the rover captured an unprecedented audio recording.

NASA released two versions of the 60-second audio on Monday, one of which includes noise from the rover and the other, below, with the rover sounds filtered out.

Listen to the sounds of a Martian breeze, audible for a few seconds.

 

“Just imagine yourself sitting on the surface of Mars and listening to the surroundings,” Dave Gruel, NASA’s lead engineer for Perseverance’s camera and microphone systems, said during a Monday press conference. “Here 10 seconds in was an actual wind gust on the surface of Mars, picked up by the microphone and sent back to us here on Earth.”

The wind was gusting at 5 meters per second (11 mph), Gruel added.

The experience of listening to it, he said, was “overwhelming, if you will.”

The rover will collect more sounds on its 2-year mission

perseverance mars rover landing photo
A photo of NASA’s Perseverance rover just feet above the Martian surface – part of a video recorded of the landing on February 18, 2021.

Perseverance launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in July and traveled nearly 300 million miles to reach Mars.

Engineers equipped the rover with two microphones. The Entry Descent and Landing (EDL) Cam microphone was primarily meant to record sounds from the landing (and from Perseverance’s journey through space). Although in the end it did not capture any audio on Thursday, it survived the descent so could record future sounds on the Martian surface.

The other mic was designed to listen to sounds from the rover, specifically its SuperCam laser instrument, which zaps Mars rocks and soil. Putting a microphone on the SuperCam gives the rover and the scientists analyzing its data another “sense” with which to probe Martian rock. The laser should make a staccato pop when it vaporizes Martian rock.

According to Gruel, both microphones will continue collecting audio during the rest of Perseverance’s mission. The rover is poised to spend the next two years scouring the river delta of Jezero Crater for signs of ancient alien life, and should collect its first rock samples this summer if all goes according to plan.

“We’re counting on both of these instruments recording some absolutely amazing sounds from the surface of Mars,” Gruel said.

mars rover perseverance helicoper ingenuity
An artist’s illustration shows NASA’s Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter on Mars.

Perseverance is NASA’s fifth and most sophisticated Mars rover. The agency equipped two Martian spacecraft with microphones in the past, but one of those – the Mars Polar Lander – failed, and the other – the Phoenix lander – never turned on its microphone. 

NASA’s InSight lander, which touched down on Mars in 2018, enabled scientists to listen to the Martian wind in a different way. The lander was equipped with a seismometer to study Mars quakes, but the tool also sensed the vibrations that wind caused as it gusted across InSight’s solar panels. The low-pitch sounds of these vibrations were audible to the human ear

“We know the public is fascinated with Mars exploration, so we added the EDL Cam microphone to the vehicle because we hoped it could enhance the experience, especially for visually-impaired space fans, and engage and inspire people around the world,” Gruel said a NASA press release.

Morgan McFall-Johnsen contributed reporting to this story.

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Watch the first-ever video of a Mars landing from NASA’s Perseverance rover

nasa perseverance mars landing video screengrab jetpack
In a screengrab from NASA’s video, a camera on Perseverance records the jetpack lowering the rover to the Martian ground.

NASA just released unprecedented video from its Perseverance rover. 

The footage was recorded on Thursday as the robot plummeted to Mars, deployed a parachute, and navigated to a safe landing spot using a jetpack.

Landing on Mars is a high-stakes, high-speed feat with only a 50% historical success rate. Perseverance managed to not only stick the landing, but also recorded the entire plunge with five ruggedized commercial cameras. (There were six, but one failed.)

All in all, the cameras captured over 23,000 images of the vehicle descending to Mars. NASA released the resulting footage on Monday. The three-minute video below is the first of its kind. No previous spacecraft has ever captured itself descending to Mars.

“These videos and these images are the stuff of our dreams. It’s what we’ve been dreaming about for years,” Al Chen, who led the rover’s entry, descent, and landing process, said in a NASA briefing on Monday.

Engineers also equipped the rover with a microphone to record the landing, but it did not capture any audio.

What you’re seeing in that video

Five cameras together recorded the rover’s descent, starting as the capsule carrying Perseverance deployed a 70-foot-wide parachute as it fell toward Mars at about 12,000 mph. Three cameras were trained on the parachute to capture it ballooning above, though one of those didn’t work. The parachute slowed the capsule’s fall to about 150 mph – faster than a falling skydiver on Earth (sans parachute). 

perseverance mars landing video nasa
A screengrab from NASA’s video shows the Perseverance capsule’s parachute deploying.

Then the capsule jettisoned its heat shield, exposing the rover’s belly and a camera that surveyed the ground below. That camera revealed the landing site in Mars’ Jezero Crater growing larger and larger as the rover neared the ground.

About 3.5 billion years ago, rivers flowed into this ancient impact basin, feeding a lake that may have sustained microscopic alien life. Perseverance aims to explore the dried-up lake bed in search of fossils of ancient microbes. The cliffs of the river delta appear on the right side of the video.

perseverance mars landing video screengrab jezero crater river delta
A screengrab from NASA’s video shows Jezero Crater below the Perseverance rover as it descends, with the river delta cliffs on the right.

About a mile above the Martian surface, the capsule dropped the rover with a jetpack strapped to its back. In the video, this maneuver produces a bright flash of light about 2 minutes and 5 seconds in.

The jetpack then fired its engines and steered Perseverance toward a safe, flat landing spot. The ground-facing camera shows Martian dust swirling as the jetpack approaches.

A camera on the jetpack looked down at the rover, and another camera on the rover looked up at the jetpack. That camera watched the jetpack as it lowered the rover on 25-foot nylon cords until it touched the ground. Then the jetpack cut the rover loose and flew away to crash-land itself at a safe distance.

perseverance mars rover landing photo
A photo of NASA’s Perseverance rover just feet above the Martian surface – part of a video recorded of the landing on February 18, 2021.

This whole entry, descent, and landing process took just seven minutes – the “seven minutes of terror,” as some engineers call it.

“I can watch those videos for hours and keep seeing new stuff every time,” Chen said.

Prior to Perseverance, the closest NASA ever came to capturing video of a Mars landing was a stop-motion movie that Curiosity captured of the ground below as it descended to Mars. In that footage, the only part of the landing process one can actually see is the heat shield falling away.

Perseverance is almost ready to film the first Mars helicopter flight

mars rover perseverance helicoper ingenuity
An artist’s illustration shows NASA’s Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter on Mars.

Perseverance is NASA’s fifth and most sophisticated Mars rover. It launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in July and traveled nearly 300 million miles to reach the red planet.

The rover is poised to spend the next two years scouring the river delta of Jezero Crater for signs of ancient alien life. The water that once flowed into the crater would have deposited mud and clay where it met the lake. If there was microbial life on ancient Mars, it could have been trapped and immortalized in those mineral deposits.

perseverance rover mars landing first color images photo jezero crater
The first high-resolution, color image sent back by the Hazard Cameras on NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover after its landing on February 18, 2021.

But Perseverance’s immediate first steps are to make sure all its systems and scientific instruments are working. Over the next few weeks, mission controllers will oversee those checks and upgrade the rover’s software to prepare it for its new life on Mars.

When that’s done, the rover is set to drive to an open field, release a small helicopter called Ingenuity from its belly, and record video as the drone attempts the first rotocraft flights on Mars. Two cameras on the bottom of Ingenuity will record video, too.

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An animation of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter exploring the Martian surface.

Ingenuity is scheduled for up to five test flights over 30 Martian days (31 Earth days). It’s just a technology demonstration, but if all goes well, the flights could show we have a a new way to explore other planets.

Once Ingenuity has flown, Perseverance can set off on its two-year mission to explore Jezero Crater. NASA hopes the rover will collect its first rock sample this summer.

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