‘Huge leap’ for NASA’s Mars helicopter ushers new mission support role

July 09, 2021

The Séítah region on Mars, filled with rocks and sand dunes, was too treacherous for NASA’s Perseverance rover to drive across. So Ingenuity, the tiny helicopter accompanying the rover, flew over the area on Monday and snapped some photos of a key spot on the other side. In less than three minutes, Ingenuity spared Perseverance the months it would have had to spend driving to take its own photos.

The quick Monday morning jump across Séítah was Ingenuity’s ninth flight on Mars so far, but it marked the first time the chopper lent a helping hand to Perseverance in its hunt for ancient signs of life at the Red Planet’s Jezero Crater. The four-pound helicopter arrived on Mars on February 14th, attached to Perseverance’s underside, and became the first object to take powered flight on another world on April 19th. Its initial set of flights served as increasingly complex practice tests to demonstrate how off-world rotorcraft can buzz around places that wheeled rovers can’t go.

But on Monday, NASA engineers pushed Ingenuity’s limits further than ever. In 166 seconds, Ingenuity flew roughly 11mph for almost a half-mile, or 2,050 feet — a far greater distance than its most recent flight in June, which tallied 525 feet. The copter buzzed around different corners of Séítah and snapped photos of its borders, where junctures between different rock formations — called contacts, in geology lingo — make for some of the most scientifically intriguing targets in Perseverance’s hunt for fossilized microbial life. 

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