NASA Mars helicopter set for grand journey back to its original airfield

An annotated image shows the route taken by the Perseverance rover across part of Jezero Crater on Mars. The rover has been exploring the Seitah area. After returning to its landing site, it will head toward Three Forks.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity was considered a success after its very first flight, but the little machine had grander ambitions. It’s now logged 14 flights across the Jezero Crater on Mars and is about to make a grand journey back to its original takeoff location, called Wright Brothers Field.

Ingenuity will be tracking its bigger buddy, the Perseverance rover, on a trip back to where they both started out. It’s part of a plan to wrap up the rover’s current science campaign in an area called Seitah. If all goes well, the two machines will reconvene near their landing site and then head out on a new adventure together to a different part of the crater.

The Ingenuity team is working out a series of between four and seven flights to get the chopper back to Wright Brothers Field. 

“Along the way the project is considering preparing a flight software upgrade for our helicopter which will potentially enable new navigation capabilities on board, and better prepare Ingenuity for the challenges ahead,” wrote Ingenuity team lead Teddy Tzanetos in a status update on Friday.

Ingenuity’s last flight, No. 14, was a successful short hop designed to test faster rotor speeds that will compensate for seasonal changes in the crater’s atmosphere. Flight 15 will take place no earlier than Saturday.  

Flight 15 is expected to take 130 seconds and carry the rotorcraft a distance of 1,332 feet (406 meters). Ingenuity will snap some photos along the way to send back to Earth.

Ingenuity’s big job right now is to act as a scout for Perseverance. The rover is collecting samples and searching for signs of ancient microbial life in an intriguing area that was once a lakebed. Together, the two machines are creating one of the best buddy stories ever told.

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