WASHINGTON — As a Mars helicopter continues to operate far past expectations, lessons from that vehicle are being incorporated into NASA’s evolving Mars Sample Return plans.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced Jan. 2 that the Ingenuity Mars helicopter completed its 70th flight on Dec. 22. The helicopter flew 260 meters during the 133-second flight, and has now traversed about 17 kilometers since its first flight in April 2021.

Ingenuity was included on the Mars 2020 mission as a technology demonstrator with the intent of performing no more than five flights. The success of Ingenuity during those flights led NASA to continue flying the helicopter, turning it into a scout for the Perseverance rover.

The success of Ingenuity has also affected NASA’s plans for Mars Sample Return (MSR). The agency, in cooperation with the European Space Agency, announced in July 2022 that it will include two helicopters based on Ingenuity on a future lander that will take the samples collected by Perseverance and launch them into orbit. Those helicopters will be a backup if Perseverance itself is not able to deliver samples to the lander by transporting samples from a surface cache to the lander.

Engineers at JPL are adapting the Ingenuity design for MSR. The lessons from flying Ingenuity are “the ground truth that we’re using to design the sample retrieval helicopters for the next mission,” said Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity project manager at JPL, during a Dec. 15 event at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center where NASA donated to the museum a prototype of Ingenuity used in ground tests.

That ground truth, he said, includes improved modeling of both the aerodynamics of the helicopter and its thermal environment, ensuring that the helicopter does not get too cold at night. “It’s very challenging on Mars for such a small craft,” he said.

At the same time, NASA is continuing its review of the overall MSR architecture after an independent review concluded the existing plan would not be ready on schedule and be far more expensive than previously expected. It’s unclear what changes, if any, that would result in the helicopters currently planned for MSR.

That effort is making “good progress,” said Eric Ianson, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, in an interview at the event. He said the effort remains on the schedule announced in the fall that called for completing the work on a revised architecture for MSR in March, but did not offer additional details about the ongoing review.

NASA announced in November that it was slowing work on MSR not just because of the architecture review but also because of budget concerns. A Senate appropriations bill would provide MSR with less than a third of its request of nearly $950 million, and with the agency operating on a continuing resolution that funds programs at 2023 levels until early February, NASA wanted to avoid a “worst-case scenario” of running out of money if the Senate bill is ultimately enacted.

Ianson, who is also deputy director of the planetary science division at NASA Headquarters, said those budget concerns are not limited to MSR. “We’re looking at all of our missions and we’re being careful to look at what the conservative numbers are within the Senate language,” he said, “trying to make sure we don’t get out over our skis.”

Tzanetos said he was pleased to be working on another helicopter so soon after building Ingenuity. “We had all imagined while working on Ingenuity that our kids’ generation or our grandchildren’s generation were then going to build the second version,” he said. “We never imagined that, while Ingenuity was still flying, we would be working on the next version of helicopters for Mars.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...