NASA Mars helicopter nails 12th flight, scouts ahead for Perseverance rover

"A dozen for the books!" tweets NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory after Ingenuity overcomes its latest challenge.

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Ingenuity snaps a picture of its shadow as it flies over South Séítah.


NASA's Ingenuity helicopter has done the dozen. Not content to just prove it could fly on Mars, the chopper is now making itself a valuable contributor on the red planet, helping the rover Perseverance in its mission to find signs of ancient microbial life. Rising 32ft above the surface of Mars on Sunday evening, the chopper completed flight 12 in 169 seconds. Nice!

The chopper flew over a region called "South Seitah," an area that's home to boulders and rocky outcrops of interest to the Perseverance rover team. NASA's JPL called the region a "geological wonder."

"Flying over Seitah South carries substantial risk because of the varied terrain," Ingenuity team lead Teddy Tzanetos wrote in a status update prior to the flight on Sunday. The helicopter's navigation system was designed to work with relatively flat terrain, so making sense out of rougher landscapes can be a challenge. The rotorcraft has run into some technical difficulties, but survived them all so far. 

"When we choose to accept the risks associated with such a flight, it is because of the correspondingly high rewards," Tzanetos said Sunday. "Knowing that we have the opportunity to help the Perseverance team with science planning by providing unique aerial footage is all the motivation needed."  

The risks of flight 12 were easily managed by Ingenuity, which hasn't stopped delivering record flights since it first took to the air back on April 20.   

Enlarge Image

This image shows the path of the Perseverance rover in gray and the Ingenuity helicopter in green as it aims to get a look at South Seitah for its 12th flight.


Ingenuity's mission has been all about risks and rewards. It was an unknown whether the helicopter would even work on Mars. 

It not only works, but is also now showing how an aerial vehicle can act as a valuable scout for a ground-based rover. Flight 12, in particular, should prove extremely valuable for the Perseverance team. Scouting ahead and examining for potentially dangerous or interesting terrain makes for a much more efficient -- and safe -- rover journey. Just think of all the extra science that can be done when you're not wasting time trying to determine which way you should roll your rover!

Perseverance is expected to meet up with Ingenuity in the coming days and NASA's scientists will examine the images to determine which rocks they should be examining next. Further flights for Ingenuity have not yet been detailed by NASA but its next sojourn, number 13, will likely concern the superstitious. 

But going by its first dozen flights, there doesn't seem too much to worry about.