NASA’s plucky Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, is about to embark on its 49th flight on the red planet.
The diminutive drone-like aircraft arrived on Mars with the Perseverance rover in February 2021.
The rover’s primary goal is to search for evidence of ancient life on the distant planet, and Ingenuity has been assisting by using its onboard camera to scout the best routes for Perseverance to take across the rocky surface.
At the start of its mission more than two years ago, the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is overseeing the current Mars adventure, was merely interested in seeing if the helicopter would be able to get airborne in Mars’ thin atmosphere.
After achieving its maiden flight in April 2021 to become the first aircraft to fly on another planet, the team has sent Ingenuity on increasingly complex trips that culminated in the flights to assist the rover.
Despite its impressive accomplishments, the team behind Ingenuity is still keen to push the aircraft to its limits, and a flight this week could send it to its highest altitude yet.
According to a tweet from JPL, Ingenuity could fly as high as 52.5 feet (16 meters), beating its previous record of 46 feet (14 meters) set on December 3, 2022.
The same flight is expected to see the 1.6-foot-tall (0.49 meters) helicopter fly for around 135 seconds and cover a distance of 894 feet (272.5 meters) while traveling at approximately 10 mph.
Ingenuity’s current record for time spent in the air stands at 169.5 seconds in a flight taken in August 2021, while the furthest it’s flown in a single outing is 2,325 feet (708.9 meters), in April 2022.
So impressed has NASA been with Ingenuity’s ability to last this long, while also overcoming a number of technical issues, that it’s planning to build a more advanced version of the aircraft for future missions to Mars and possibly other planets.
NASA would use the vehicle to gather visual data from the air for mapping and to assist rovers on the ground. It could also be used to transport rock and soil samples to waiting spacecraft that would bring them home for closer analysis by scientists keen to learn more about a planet’s history and the formation of our solar system.
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NASA’s InSight Mars lander reached the red planet four years ago and has worked well beyond the two years originally set for the mission. But in the coming weeks or perhaps months, the lander will make its final communications with Earth before falling silent for the rest of time.
A gradual accumulation of Martian dust on the lander’s solar panels has reduced its ability to retain power, and so it will soon be unable to continue its seismology work gathering data about the red planet’s interior.
NASA is testing ways to crash land on Mars
To get machines onto Mars, NASA has been deploying various landing methods that over the years have included air bags, parachutes, and jetpacks.
Indeed, spectacular high-definition footage captured last year showed how the space agency deployed parachutes and jetpacks to get its Perseverance rover safely onto the surface of the red planet.
NASA aces test of robot balloon that could one day explore Venus
Mars gets a lot of attention from earthlings these days, but recently Venus is coming under the spotlight, with NASA, its European counterpart ESA, and New Zealand spaceflight company Rocket Lab all planning to send missions there in the coming years.
Besides these, NASA is also considering exploring the inhospitable planet by sailing a robotic “aerobot” balloon in the Venusian winds.