NASA and China's Mars Rover Milestones Compared After Ingenuity's 'Stressful' 6th Flight

NASA announced the sixth flight of its Ingenuity helicopter on Mars on Thursday, on what was the Perseverance rover's 91st Martian day spent on the red planet.

The flight ended up pushing Ingenuity to its operational limits as the helicopter encountered a mid-air glitch that caused it to tilt back and forth.

NASA said the helicopter was able to land safely because engineers had installed a safeguard—called a stability margin—that prevented it from losing control even in the face of in-flight errors.

Just keep flying 🚁#MarsHelicopter completed its 6th flight. Despite unexpected motion from an image processing issue, Ingenuity muscled through the final ~65 meters of its 215-meter journey, landed safely & is ready to fly again. The chief pilot explains https://t.co/533hn7qixk pic.twitter.com/IHkkjXaHDd

— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) May 27, 2021

Håvard Grip, Ingenuity's chief pilot at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, wrote after the flight: "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. That data will be carefully analyzed in the time ahead, expanding our reservoir of knowledge about flying helicopters on Mars."

The flight was the latest development in Perseverance's mission so far as the rover and its helicopter companion approach 100 days on Mars.

It comes after China successfully landed its own rover, called Zhurong, on the red planet on May 14.

Here's a round-up of some of the two missions' milestones so far.

Zhurong

The landing—a national first

Zhurong's landing—part of the wider Tianwen-1 mission—was a milestone in itself, not just for China but in terms of space travel overall.

It marked China's first ever attempt at landing a probe on Mars, and made China the second country ever, after the U.S., to land and operate a rover on Mars for an extended time.

It is also the first mission in which an orbiter, lander, and rover has been sent to Mars.

First movement

Less than a week after touching down, Zhurong successfully drove on the surface of Mars.

The rover's wheels touched Martian sand on May 21 at around 10:40 p.m. EDT, China's CNSA space agency said. Up until that point, the rover had been sitting on its landing platform.

The gap between landing and driving was longer for Perseverance, which landed on Mars on February 18 and performed its first drive on March 4, when it travelled about 21 feet.

China rover photo
One of the first photos sent back by CNSA's Zhurong rover released on May 19, a couple of days after landing earlier this month. CNS / CNSA / AFP / Getty

First photos

On May 19, CNSA released two photos taken by Zhurong—a black-and-white image from the rover's obstacle avoidance camera and a colour one from the navigation camera.

The agency also released a video taken by a camera on the orbiter, which shows how the lander and rover separated.

First magnetometer

Zhurong is the first Mars rover to come equipped with a magnetometer—a device it will use to measure the magnetic field around it.

Data on Mars' magnetic field could give scientists insight into how it works and why it is not strong enough to make Mars hospitable for life, according to the journal Nature.

Perseverance

First photo from Mars
Perseverance's first photo taken from the surface of Mars, on February 18. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mass of photos

Perseverance's photo and video-gathering operation has been extensive. At the time of writing the rover had sent back 74,887 raw images of Mars.

The first photo was snapped just minutes after landing on February 18, taken using one of the rover's hazard avoidance cameras.

First sounds from Mars

On February, 20 Perseverance used an on-board microphone to capture the first audio recordings from the Martian surface.

The recordings include a brief gust of Martian wind, as well as the mechanical sounds of the rover itself as it operates. Later, Perseverance also recorded itself driving on the surface of Mars.

Oxygen created on Mars

On April 20, Perseverance used its MOXIE experiment to convert some of Mars' carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere into oxygen. It produced about five grams.

NASA said the experiment demonstrated the technology needed for isolating oxygen on Mars to help power rockets and provide astronauts with breathable air for potential future missions.

Ingenuity

NASA's Mars helicopter was designed to demonstrate technology capable of flight on another planet, and on April 28 NASA announced it has met or surpassed all of its initial objectives.

The agency said it had decided to push Ingenuity further, extending its range, speed and flight duration "to gain further performance insight."

The new phase of Ingenuity's operation will aim to find out what capabilities a helicopter could provide to future Mars missions, including accessing areas and ground-based rover cannot.

Perseverance selfie
A 'selfie' taken by Perseverance, April 6, which includes the Ingenuity helicopter in the background. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS