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NASA’s Mars helicopter takes longest flight since lengthy layoff

NASA’s plucky Mars helicopter just keeps on going.

The Ingenuity aircraft completed its 31st flight on the red planet on September 6, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is overseeing the current Mars mission, reported on Wednesday.

The helicopter, which flew into the record books in April 2021 when it became the first aircraft to perform a powered, controlled flight on another planet, traveled for 319 feet (97.2 meters) at an altitude of 33 feet (10 meters), JPL said in a tweet. The agency has yet to comment in more detail on the flight.

We had liftoff!#MarsHelicopter completed a successful Flight 31 on September 6. Ingenuity flew 318 ft (97 m) west towards the Jezero river delta, in 55.6 seconds.

⬆️ Max Altitude: 33 ft (10 m)
➡️ Distance: 319 ft (97.2 m)


— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) September 7, 2022

Tuesday’s sortie was the second since June 11, after which the mission team grounded Ingenuity due to an uptick in dust storms and bitterly cold seasonal temperatures.

Following its extended break, JPL tested Ingenuity in a short flight covering just a few meters on August 20. The successful hop paved the way for normal operations to resume this week, with Ingenuity this time managing to cover a decent distance. However, this was well short of its longest flight so far, in April 2022, when it traveled 2,326 meters (709 meters) over the martian surface.

Ingenuity is heading to the river delta inside the Jezero Crater, where it’ll meet up with the Perseverance rover, which is continuing its mission to collect samples of martian soil for return to Earth so scientists can study the material for evidence of ancient microbial life on the distant planet.

After completing numerous flight tests last year in which the mission team was able to prove the viability of flying such an aircraft on a planet with an atmosphere much thinner than Earth’s, JPL began using Ingenuity to assist the Perseverance rover on its explorations of Jezero Crater.

The helicopter has been helping by using its onboard camera to image areas of interest so that the team can see if it’s worth sending Perseverance for a closer look. It’s also mapping the terrain, enabling controllers to use the data to create the safest routes for Perseverance to take.

Ingenuity has performed so well that NASA recently announced it’s intending to build more advanced versions of the drone-like flying machine for future planetary missions.

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Trevor Mogg
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