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NASA’s Mars helicopter just flew a colossal distance

NASA’s plucky Ingenuity helicopter has just completed its 69th flight on Mars, setting a new distance record in the process.

The 4-pound, 19-inch-tall helicopter flew a colossal 2,315 feet (705 meters) on Wednesday, edging past its previous record of 2,310 feet (704 meters) set in April 2022. That’s like flying nine blocks north from Manhattan’s Times Square to 54th Street.

In another mammoth mission just last week, Ingenuity flew 2,304 feet (702 meters) across the martian surface.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is overseeing the Mars mission, announced the new record in a post on social media on Thursday.

'Tis the season of flying for Ingenuity! 🎁

The #MarsHelicopter completed Flight 69, traveling its longest distance so far at ~2,313 ft (705 m) for 135 seconds. It will attempt Flight 70 no earlier than Dec. 22: https://t.co/t0LD4ucmhi pic.twitter.com/3lFOnJ1ZYS

— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) December 21, 2023

Wednesday’s record-breaking flight in Mars’ super-thin atmosphere took 135.4 seconds to complete and also saw Ingenuity equal its top speed of 22.4 mph — achieved in two previous flights.

Ingenuity arrived on Mars with the Perseverance rover in February 2021. Its mission began as a technology demonstration to test the first powered flight on Mars, a feat that it comfortably achieved during a short hover in April 2021.

Since then, the aircraft has gone on to fly evermore complex flights, staying in the air for a cumulative total of 125.5 minutes, and covering 10.4 miles (16.7 kilometers) while reaching altitudes of up to 78.7 feet (24 meters).

During its airborne adventures, NASA’s high-achieving helicopter has been using its onboard camera to capture aerial images of the martian terrain that are then beamed back to JPL in Southern California.

The aerial imagery has even been used by the Perseverance team to help it plan the safest and most efficient routes for the wheel-based rover as it goes about exploring Mars for evidence of ancient microbial life. It’s even brought attention to interesting rock formations, prompting the Perseverance team to send the rover along to take a closer look.

NASA engineers have been so impressed by Ingenuity’s performance that it seems likely that more advanced versions of the aircraft will be created for future mission to Mars and other celestial bodies.

To celebrate Ingenuity’s already-secured place in aviation history, the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., recently put on display a prototype of the Mars helicopter.

But Ingenuity’s work is not yet done. While it still has power and functionality, the folks at JPL plan to keep sending the impressive machine skyward, continuing its exploration of the red planet for as long as possible.

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Trevor Mogg
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