Mars helicopter Ingenuity breaks 3-month flight gap with 53rd Red Planet hop

NASA’s Red Planet helicopter took to the skies again after a three-month pause. The Ingenuity drone flew sometime in the last few days on Mars, achieving Flight 53. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has not yet released details of the flight, but its Twitter account already says 54 is in the works.

The mini rotorcraft, which hitched a ride to the Red Planet with the Perseverance rover in early 2021, has already survived well beyond its initial 30-day mission to prove the feasibility of its technology in five test flights.

Since then, it has been deployed dozens of times, acting as an aerial scout to assist its wheeled companion in searching for signs of ancient microbial life from billions of years ago, when Mars was much wetter and warmer than today.

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“The #Mars Helicopter team is planning a short pop-up flight, with the rotorcraft reaching 16 feet (5 meters) for about 25 seconds,” JPL officials wrote of Flight 54 on Thursday (Aug. 3).

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The milestone 53rd flight happened three months after the last excursion on April 26. Ingenuity hopped behind rugged terrain and fell silent. That’s because it couldn’t reach┬áPerseverance, the massive rover relaying communications to and from Earth, until the two vehicles came within view of each other on June 28.

Flight 53, listed as a scouting flight by JPL, was expected to fly no earlier than July 22. Its aim was to hop the helicopter horizontally and north across 666 feet (203 meters) of Martian terrain with air time of roughly 2 minutes and 16 seconds. Ingenuity was expected to soar roughly 32 feet (10 meters) into the air and achieve a top speed of 5.6 mph (2.5 meters per second).

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Anecdotal Twitter reports by keen-eyed Mars watchers, looking at the raw pictures coming in from the Red Planet, suggest the actual flight date took place on or before Aug. 2. JPL has not yet released any details of the timing, duration, altitude, distance or speed of the flight on the Ingenuity flight log as of mid-morning EDT of Friday (Aug. 4).

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Ingenuity has expanded its flight manifest by more than fivefold. Sent to Mars as the first powered, controlled aircraft on another world, the original plan called for only five flights in 2021. The helicopter has persisted with flair through communications shortages, cold weather, dusty conditions and other complications endemic to working on the Red Planet.

The drone’s expanded mission now sees Ingenuity act as a scout for its partner Perseverance, which alighted on the surface in February 2021. Perseverance is on a hunt for ancient habitable conditions and is caching samples aside for a planned Mars sample return mission. Lightsaber-shaped samples of Red Planet material may ferry back to Earth in the 2030s, depending on funding and political will.

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Ingenuity’s 52nd flight launched on April 26, but mission controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California lost contact as it descended to the surface following its two minute, 1,191-foot (363-meter) hop.

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The loss of communications was expected, because a hill stood between Ingenuity and Perseverance, which acts as a relay between the drone and Earth. Nonetheless, “this has been the longest we’ve gone without hearing from Ingenuity so far in the mission,” Joshua Anderson, Ingenuity team lead at JPL, told AFP.

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Data so far indicates that the heli is in good shape. If further health checks also come back normal, Ingenuity will be all set for its next flight, westward toward a rocky outcrop the Perseverance team is interested in exploring.

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It’s not the first time Ingenuity has experienced downed communications. The heli was scouring an ancient river delta when it went missing for around six days in April, “an agonizingly long time,” chief engineer Travis Brown wrote in a blog post.

About the author

Naqvi Syed

Naqvi Syed is is a freelance journalist who has contributed to several publications, including Spacepsychiatrist. He tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. He works with Spacepsychiatrist from a long time.


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