Space Column: Ingenious Ingenuity Invents Interplanetary Flying

Read Time:5 Minutes

By Julian O’Connor, Chief Copy Editor  

Image Credit: NASA for Horizons

Hello everyone, and welcome back to another space column! If you’re wondering how much I had to stretch for that title, the answer is not as much as you might think, and although “invents” is a bit strong of a word, it’s not entirely inaccurate. Before we discuss that though, let me quickly describe what exactly Ingenuity is, for those of you who might not know.  

Ingenuity is a Martian helicopter (shout out to our rotary pilots. How would you like to fly a helicopter on Mars?), which launched with the Perseverance rover mission on July 30, 2020. Perseverance is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s newest mobile science lab on Mars, and its main mission is to seek out signs of ancient life and collect samples of rock and regolith for possible return to Earth in a future mission [1].  

Perseverance is about the size of a car, measuring 10 feet (three meters) long without its arm, nine feet (2.7 meters) wide, and seven feet (2.2 meters) tall. It has a mass of 1,025 kilograms, which is slightly greater than Curiosity’s, NASA’s last Mars rover [2]. Perseverance is equipped with state of the art instruments: able to map the subsurface, make a full set of weather measurements, take pictures, and perform advanced geologic analysis of minerals found on the Martian surface.  

But we’re not here to talk about space cars; we’re here to talk about space helicopters! Ingenuity hitched a ride on Perseverance, landing attached to the rover on Feb. 18, 2021, about two years ago. Perseverance wasn’t just Ingenuity’s ride to Mars, but also its ride to a good “airfield” [3].  

Once Perseverance arrived at the airfield and detached Ingenuity, the rotor craft made its first flight on April 19, 2021. On that flight, it took off, climbed to 10 feet in the air, made a turn, and then landed. Although that may not sound exciting to some, it was in fact a major milestone: until then, all flights outside Earth’s atmosphere had been powered by rockets or slowed by parachutes. No aircraft built by humans, plane or helicopter, had ever taken off on another world. Until Ingenuity’s first flight, that is. It proved that flight on other planets, even ones with very different atmospheres, like Mars, was possible.  

After two more successful flights, the helicopter completed its technology demonstration. But much like the rovers Spirit and Opportunity,  Ingenuity didn’t stop when it finished it’s initial mission. To date, Ingenuity has completed 45 flights.  

Those 45 flights have spanned a distance of 9,659 meters (about 31,691 feet, or about six miles) and a total flight time of about 77.2 minutes, reached a highest altitude of 14 meters (about 46 feet), gone as fast as 5.5 meters per second (12.3 miles per hour) [6].  

The helicopter was originally a technology demonstrator, but NASA has now been using its capabilities to complement those of Perseverance, using its cameras to assist in scouting operations for the rover. Ingenuity has proven so useful that NASA plans to send two retrieval helicopters to Mars with the mission to recover Perseverance’s surface samples [4].  

Ingenuity was in the news recently for reaching 42 flights (the answer to life, the universe, and everything, from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams and a popular meme number), but as the helicopter has been averaging a flight a week, that number changed by the time I got around to writing this article – making it all the more impressive [4]!  

Having dropped off some Martian samples for future helicopters to collect, Perseverance is heading to explore a new area – with Ingenuity [5]. It is fascinating to see how far the duo has come and how Ingenuity has changed planetary exploration forever.  


1: Perseverance Homepage []  

2: Perseverance Fact Sheet []  

3: Ingenuity Homepage [
4:, “Don’t panic: Ingenuity helicopter reaches 42 flights on Mars” [

5:, “Perseverance Mars rover to start caching samples for future return to Earth” [

6: Ingenuity Flight Log: [

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