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NASA’s Mars helicopter just did something it’s never done before

NASA’s Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity, has surpassed the mission team’s expectations for the diminutive drone-like machine.

Ever since its maiden flight over the Martian surface in April 2021 in which it became the first aircraft to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet, Ingenuity has gone on to perform evermore complex flights and even assisted Perseverance, the ground-based rover that Ingenuity traveled with from Earth to Mars before their spectacular touchdown in February 2021.

In the last month alone, the 4-pound, 19-inch-tall helicopter has set three records. In early October, it set a new altitude record by soaring 79 feet (24 meters) above the red planet’s surface, and a short while later it reached a record speed of 22.4 mph (10 meters per second) during its 62nd flight, comfortably exceeding its previous speed record of 17.9 mph (8 m/s).

And now NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is overseeing the Ingenuity mission, has announced a new first for the helicopter: back-to-back flights on consecutive days.

The flights — the 65th and 66th for Ingenuity — took place on November 2 and 3, with JPL confirming their success on Tuesday. Usually, the team would take time to assess the results of each flight, so sending the helicopter skyward again in such a short period of time is a mark of the team’s confidence in Ingenuity, which has more than proved itself over the last two-and-a-half years.

The 65th flight was relatively short for Ingenuity, covering a distance of just 23 feet (7 meters). But the next flight was even shorter, taking it just a couple of feet in a repositioning exercise to prepare it for a two-week communications shutdown with JPL.

This shutdown is the result of what’s known as solar conjunction when the orbit of Earth and Mars places the two planets on opposite sides of the sun, blocking communications for about two weeks. Solar conjunction involving Mars happens once every couple of years and so the JPL team has successfully dealt with one already, in September 2021.

Once communications resume later this month, Ingenuity and Perseverance will get back to work. For the rover, that means further exploration of the Martian surface as it searches for evidence of ancient microbial life. Ingenuity, meanwhile, will continue to provide aerial imagery for Perseverance to help operators plan routes across the challenging terrain, while also giving engineers data to help them design more advanced versions of the helicopter for future missions.

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Trevor Mogg
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