Why it matters: NASA has extended flight operations for its Ingenuity Mars Helicopter through September as the craft continues to exceed expectations. It'll now serve as a scout for Perseverance, helping NASA decide which route the ground-based rover should take as it traverses the Jezero Crater.
Ingenuity landed on Mars along with the Perseverance rover on February 18, 2021, and completed its first flight roughly two months later.
NASA originally designed Ingenuity to fly up to five times during a 30-day test campaign, partially to determine if controlled flight of an aircraft on Mars was even possible. The helicopter soon proved it was more than capable of meeting NASA's expectations, so more time was added to its proverbial clock.
Ingenuity recently completed its 21st flight, the first of at least three that will be necessary to move the helicopter to a new staging area near the base of the Jezero Crater. Once it arrives, NASA will use the copter to scout potential routes for its Perseverance rover to reach the same area by land.
Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity team lead at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the Jezero campaign will be the biggest challenge yet for the Ingenuity team since its first flight. "To enhance our chances of success, we have increased the size of our team and are making upgrades to our flight software geared toward improving operational flexibility and flight safety," Tzanetos added.
To date, the aircraft has logged over 38 minutes of flight time on Mars and traveled nearly three miles. Due to how long it takes radio signals to travel from Earth to Mars, Ingenuity has to be operated autonomously with maneuvers pre-planned and programmed in ahead of time.
Ingenuity's next flight is scheduled for no earlier than March 19.