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NASA's Mars Helicopter Flies High, Sets Altitude Record

It's a bird. It's a plane. It's a freakin' helicopter on Mars making history.

Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, a small solar-paneled rotorcraft on reddish-brown pebbly ground.
NASA's experimental Ingenuity helicopter poses on Mars in 2021.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

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

Here's a reminder of something amazing: there's a tiny helicopter flying around on Mars. It arrived in early 2021 and was only designed to last a short while. NASA's Ingenuity rotorcraft is not only still soaring, it just set an altitude record during its 35th flight on Saturday.

NASA JPL trumpeted the plucky helicopter's "all-time high" in a tweet on Tuesday. Ingenuity reached 46 feet (14 meters) above the dusty Martian ground.

For perspective, Ingenuity just flew to about the height of the letters on the Hollywood sign, or more than twice the height of an adult male giraffe. That might not seem crazy, but please remember this is in the thin atmosphere on Mars. The helicopter handily eclipsed its previous altitude record of 39 feet (12 meters), which it achieved on several previous flights.

Flight 35 lasted 52 seconds. Ingenuity covered 49 feet (15 meters) of ground. The goal was to reposition the helicopter. Ingenuity needs to stay in touch with its companion, the Perseverance rover, which acts as a communications conduit between the rotorcraft and its team back on Earth. Some of its flights are designed to keep up with the rover's travel, some are about scouting the landscape and some are to test out hardware or software.

Ingenuity has seen some things in its short but exciting life. It's surveyed the Mars surface, flown with weird debris on its leg, and survived technical issues, dust, freezing temperatures and low power. A recent software update has prepared it to handle more challenging terrain and to keep on working as a scout for the rover.

All in all, Ingenuity has just as much perseverance as Perseverance. NASA sent it to Mars as a high-risk, high-reward technology demonstration, and it has blown past all expectations. Here's to more flights to come.