NASA’s stalwart Mars helicopter is back and better than ever

NASA's <em>Ingenuity</em> Mars Helicopter acquired this image using its navigation camera during its thin-atmosphere flight this week.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter acquired this image using its navigation camera during its thin-atmosphere flight this week. (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Nearly seven months have passed since NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter made its first groundbreaking flight on Mars.

Since that initial tentative hovering above the surface of Mars, Ingenuity has flown a progression of longer, more significant, and scientifically important flights. It has flown as far as 625 meters in a single flight, as high as 12 meters, and for a duration of as long as 169.5 seconds.

But in September the small flying vehicle faced a growing threat from a thinning atmosphere due to seasonal variation. NASA’s Perseverance mission had landed in Jezero Crater, in the northern hemisphere of Mars, during the planet’s late winter in February. But since then summer has come on, and the density of Mars’ atmosphere has fallen from about 1.5 percent that of Earth’s atmosphere to 1.0 percent. For a helicopter already pushing the limits of flying in a thin atmosphere, this represented a significant decline.

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