NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter flew for the 37th time on Saturday (December 17), in a move designed in part to test the capabilities of its new program.
Dexterity stayed aloft for 55 seconds and covered 203 feet (62 meters) of the Red Planet’s land on the flight, which was her third this month.
The main goals of Saturday’s flyby were for Ingenuity to “relocate and test new flight software capabilities,” according to officials at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, which manages the Ingenuity mission, he said via Twitter (Opens in a new tab) On Monday (December 19).
Related: Fly over the tracks of the Mars probe with an innovative helicopter (video)
This new software, installed last month, allows Ingenuity to avoid hazards during descent and use digital elevation maps for navigation purposes, mission team members said. (Opens in a new tab).
The spinner touched down on the floor of Jezero Crater on the Red Planet in February 2021 with NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is searching for signs of past Martian life and collecting samples for future return to Earth.
Ingenuity’s primary mission was to show that atmospheric exploration is possible on Mars despite its thin atmosphere, which is only 1% as dense as Earth’s at sea level. Helicopter completed this assignment over the course of five flights in the spring of 2021, and then transitioned into an expanded assignment in which she serves as a Perseverance Scout.
Ingenuity has now traveled a total of 24,867 feet (7,479 meters) and stayed in the air for about 62 minutes during 37 flights on the Red Planet, according to the mission’s flight log. (Opens in a new tab). Team members said that these numbers should continue to increase for a while, because the helicopter remains healthy.
Ingenuity’s success paves the way for future rotorcraft missions to the Red Planet. JPL is developing concepts for larger and more ambitious Mars helicopters that would collect science data, for example. NASA plans to launch two Creation-like craft to the Red Planet later in the 2020s to help bring Perseverance samples back to Earth.
The basic plan for the Mars sample return campaign calls for Perseverance to deliver its samples to a rocket-equipped lander. This rocket will launch the samples into Mars orbit, where a European spacecraft will snag them and bring them back to Earth, possibly as early as 2033.
Helicopters will fly on the lander as a backup: if Perseverance can’t deliver the samples themselves, helicopters will fly them to the lander from warehouses on the Jezero floor. (Perseverance takes two samples from each target rock, storing one set of samples on its body and storing the other in repositories.)
Mike Wall is the author of “Abroad (Opens in a new tab)Book (Major Grand Publishers, 2018; illustration by Carl Tate), a book about the search for aliens. Follow him on Twitter @employee (Opens in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter @employee (Opens in a new tab) and on Facebook (Opens in a new tab).
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