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More than a year and a half after its first flight on Mars, the Ingenuity helicopter has set a new record.
The little 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) chopper completed its 35th flight on December 3 and reached a new altitude record of 46 feet (14 meters).
The aerial excursion lasted for 52 seconds and took the helicopter a distance of about 50 feet (15 meters) to reposition it. This was Ingenuity’s first substantial outing since an 18-second hop and hover maneuver on November 22 to test the helicopter after receiving a major software upgrade that could increase the chopper’s life span.
The software will help Ingenuity with hazard avoidance when landing on the rocky Martian surface by generating digital elevation maps as it navigates on future flights.
Ingenuity was initially designed as a technology demonstration that would only pursue five flights on Mars after hitching a ride to the red planet with the Perseverance rover, which has been exploring the Martian landscape since February 2021.
Instead, the chopper has proven itself time and time again and become the rover’s aerial scout, flying over areas deemed too dangerous for the rover and surveying potential future destinations.
This expanded role has also sent Ingenuity flying over and landing on much more challenging terrain than ever anticipated by her team. Now that the team has had time to assess how Ingenuity is adjusting to its upgrades, the little chopper is ready to lift off for regular flights once more.
Next, Ingenuity will begin flying up the steep terrain of the ancient river delta, where water once flowed into Jezero crater more than 3 billion years ago.
Ingenuity’s surprising journey has also paved the way for future aerial exploration vehicles.
“Ingenuity’s success has led to NASA’s decision to take two Ingenuity class helicopters on the Mars Sample Retrieval Lander scheduled for later in this decade,” wrote Bob Balaram, Ingenuity chief engineer emeritus, in a NASA blog update.
“These Sample Recovery Helicopters, with wheels instead of feet, and a small manipulator arm with a two-fingered gripper, will, if needed, carry precious sample tubes from a sample cache depot back to the Mars ascent vehicle for launch back to Earth. A more capable Mars Science Helicopter with the ability to carry almost 5 kg of science payloads is also in early conceptual and design stages.”
Meanwhile, the Perseverance rover continues to collect intriguing samples from Mars. On December 2 and December 6, the robotic explorer gathered its first two samples of regolith, or wind-blown sand and dust, from a small dune.
“There are so many different materials mixed into Martian regolith,” said astrobiologist Libby Hausrath, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Mars Sample Return scientist, in a statement. “Each sample represents an integrated history of the planet’s surface.”
Perseverance will drop some of its samples later this month at a designated flat depot site. The cache will be collected by future missions during the Mars Sample Return campaign and returned to Earth in the 2030s.
Broken rock and dust could reveal more information about the environment and geological history of Mars — but it could also shed light on how that dust might impact solar panels, spacesuits and other items crewed missions to the red planet will require.
When the Apollo astronauts landed on the moon, lunar regolith was discovered to be sharp enough to tear tiny holes in their spacesuits.
Scientists know the Martian surface includes a toxic chemical called perchlorate that could pose a threat to future explorers if inhaled.
“If we have a more permanent presence on Mars, we need to know how the dust and regolith will interact with our spacecraft and habitats,” said Erin Gibbons, Earth and planetary sciences doctoral student at McGill University in Montreal and member of the Perseverance rover science team, in a statement.
“Some of those dust grains could be as fine as cigarette smoke, and could get into an astronaut’s breathing apparatus. We want a fuller picture of which materials would be harmful to our explorers, whether they’re human or robotic.”