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NASA’s Mars helicopter sets a new extraterrestrial record


One of humanity’s most successful aerial missions isn’t happening anywhere near Earth.

In early December, NASA‘s experimental helicopter, Ingenuity, whirled its four-foot-long rotor blades and flew on Mars for the 35th time. The space agency’s four-pound chopper (it weighs just 1.5 pounds on the smaller, less massive Red Planet) ascended to 46 feet above the desert floor, its highest altitude ever — and the highest-ever flight of a powered aircraft on another world.

“An all-time high for the #MarsHelicopter!” NASA tweeted on Dec. 6. “Ingenuity completed Flight 35 over the weekend and set a new max altitude record, hitting 46 ft (14 meters) above the Martian surface.”

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Ingenuity flew for 52 seconds, reaching nearly 7 miles per hour while traveling 15 feet horizontally.

This extraterrestrial aerial mission, which is still a flight demo, continues to vastly exceed NASA’s expectations. “Less than a year ago we didn’t even know if powered, controlled flight of an aircraft at Mars was possible,” Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement earlier this year. “Now, we are looking forward to Ingenuity’s involvement in [the Mars Perseverance rover’s] second science campaign. Such a transformation of mindset in such a short period is simply amazing, and one of the most historic in the annals of air and space exploration.”

Flying on Mars isn’t easy. This arid world has a profoundly thin atmosphere, with just one percent the surface air pressure of Earth. “This means there are relatively few air molecules with which Ingenuity’s two 4-foot-wide (1.2-meter-wide) rotor blades can interact to achieve flight,” explains NASA.

The Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, as seen from the Perseverance rover.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Yet the experimental rotor blades catch enough air to repeatedly take-off, fly, and land safely without direct human control. NASA engineers beam flight instructions to the nearby Perseverance rover — a car-sized exploration robot — which then transmits the next aerial mission to Ingenuity.

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As long as the small, dusty helicopter holds up, Ingenuity will continue to journey through Mars with Perseverance. The machines are currently exploring the dried-up delta in Mars’ Jezero Crater, a place planetary scientists believe once hosted a lake.

“This delta is one of the best locations on Mars for the rover to look for signs of past microscopic life,” NASA said.

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