It was up, up, and away last weekend for NASA's Ingenuity helicopter, which completed its 24th Martian flight on Sunday (April 3).
The sortie was just a short repositioning hop, covering 154 feet (47 meters) of ground in 69.5 seconds at a maximum altitude of 33 feet (10 m). But it was an important flight, helping reposition Ingenuity for its exit out of the Séítah region of Mars' Jezero Crater on its way to an ancient river delta, where the helicopter will work in tandem with NASA's life-hunting, sample-collecting Perseverance rover.
Sunday's flight also marked the first time the helicopter took off at a different time of day — 9:30 a.m. local mean solar time (LMST), rather than the standard 10 a.m. LMST.
Since March 10, Ingenuity has been making its way across Séítah, a region filled with hazards for little helicopters — namely rock- and dune-filled terrain that could cause the vehicle to flip upon landing. (Perseverance, on the other hand, is taking a roundabout route to avoid the uneven Mars terrain.)
The first three Séítah flights went off without a hitch, but Ingenuity's team faced a tough decision for the final leg of the journey, with three options that each presented challenges. The team ultimately chose a flight plan that included the tiny hop completed on Sunday, which put Ingenuity in an opportune position for the final flight out of Séítah, mission team members explained in a blog post on Tuesday (April 5).
That flight plan, however, required Ingenuity to fly 30 minutes earlier in the day than usual on Sunday. Because the helicopter uses its solar-powered batteries to heat itself at night, it "wakes up" with some battery depletion, which it replaces when the sun rises in the morning. Taking off earlier in the day means that Ingenuity has less time to recharge before a flight, adding to the risk.
But Ingenuity demonstrated the capability to fly earlier on Flight 24, so the helicopter is currently preparing for its exit out of Séítah; the flight instructions have already been uplinked to Mars.
Ingenuity is proving to be the little engine that could, vastly exceeding its original mission — a five-flight technology demonstration designed to show that it's possible for a helicopter to explore Mars. Since its first flight on April 19, 2021, Ingenuity has flown 23 more times, covering a total distance of 3.21 miles (5.17 kilometers).