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NASA Mars helicopter tallies astounding total of 30 minutes aloft

Ingenuity has done something almost unthinkable: persevered in flight on Mars.

ingenuity
NASA's Ingenuity helicopter sits with a slight tilt in this Perseverance rover image from Dec. 1, 2021.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

Frigid temperatures. Rocky terrain. A thin atmosphere. Dust. NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity has pushed through it all and reached a remarkable milestone for time spent in flight: over 30 minutes. "Few thought we would make it to flight one, fewer still to five. And no one thought we would make it this far," Ingenuity team lead Teddy Tzanetos said in a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory statement on Wednesday.

Ingenuity's successful 17th flight on Dec. 5 -- which also brought a minor communications hiccup -- put the rotorcraft at an accumulated 30 minutes and 48 seconds of flight time. That's a wild achievement for what was considered a high-risk technology demonstration.

A disruption in the radio communication between the helicopter and the rover meant Ingenuity's team had a delay in confirming the 17th flight. The rotorcraft was originally meant to perform up to five test flights, but it has far exceeded expectations. 

Ingenuity has been in residence on Mars since landing with its companion, the Perseverance rover, in February. It has since traveled 2.2 miles (3,592 meters) and reached as high as 40 feet (12 meters) off the ground. It's now working as an aerial scout for the rover.

The rotorcraft was scheduled to take its 18th flight on Wednesday, which would add another 125 seconds to its tally. It takes time to get the data back to Earth and combed through to know if the flight went off as planned. The flight will be a test of the chopper's radio link with Perseverance. 

If communications between the helicopter and the rover continue to experience disruptions, it could take days or weeks before the two machines are back in touch. "While delaying our post-flight data analysis is an inconvenience, it is not unexpected and becoming the new normal as we continue to operate in challenging terrain in the weeks ahead," Tzanetos said.

If past success is any indication, Ingenuity could accumulate many more minutes of soaring over Mars.