NASA’s Ingenuity Mars copter flew for the 37th time on Saturday (December 17), with a jump designed in part to test the capabilities of its new software.
Ingenuity stayed aloft for 55 seconds and covered 203 feet (62 meters) of the Red Planet’s terrain on the flyby, its third this month.
The main goals of Saturday’s flight were for Ingenuity to “reposition and test new flight software capabilities,” officials at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, which manages Ingenuity’s mission, said. he said via Twitter (opens in new tab) on Monday (December 19).
Related: Fly over Mars rover tracks with the Ingenuity helicopter (video)
This new software, which was installed last month, allows Ingenuity to avoid hazards during landing and use digital elevation maps for navigation purposes, mission team members said (opens in new tab).
The rotor landed on the floor of the Red Planet’s Jezero crater in February 2021 with NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is hunting for signs of past life on Mars and collecting samples for a future return to Earth.
Ingenuity’s main mission was to show that aerial exploration is possible on Mars despite its thin atmosphere, which is only 1% as dense as Earth’s at sea level. The helicopter completed this task during five flights in the spring of 2021 and then transitioned to an extended mission in which it serves as a probe for Persistence.
Ingenuity has now traveled a total of 24,867 feet (7,479 m) and has been in the air for nearly 62 minutes during its 37 flights to the Red Planet, according to the mission’s flight log. (opens in new tab). Those numbers should continue to rise for a while because the helicopter remains in good health, team members said.
Ingenuity’s success paves the way for future rotorcraft missions to the Red Planet. JPL is developing ideas for larger, more ambitious Mars helicopters that would gather scientific data, for example. And NASA plans to launch two Ingenuity 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 Persistence to deliver its samples to a rocket-equipped lander. This rocket will launch the samples into Mars orbit, where a European spacecraft will grab them and bring them back to Earth, perhaps as early as 2033.
Helicopters will fly to the landing pad as a backup: If Perseverance is unable to deliver the samples herself, the helicopters will transport them to the landing pad from the warehouses on the Jezero floor. (Perseverance takes two samples from each of its target rocks; it will store one set of samples in its body and store the other set in storage.)
Mike Wall is the author of “Out there (opens in new tab)” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018, illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) and up Facebook (opens in new tab).