NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter flew for the 37th time on Saturday (Dec. 17), acing a hop designed in part to test the capabilities of its new software.
Ingenuity stayed aloft for 55 seconds and covered 203 feet (62 meters) of Red Planet ground on the flight, which was its third this month.
The main goals of Saturday's sortie were for Ingenuity "to reposition itself and test new flight software capabilities," officials with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, which manages Ingenuity's mission, said via Twitter on Monday (Dec. 19).
That new software, which was installed last month, allows Ingenuity to avoid hazards during landing and to use digital elevation maps for navigation purposes, mission team members have said.
The rotorcraft landed on the floor of the Red Planet's Jezero Crater in February 2021 with NASA's Perseverance rover, which is hunting for signs of past Mars life and collecting samples for future return to Earth.
Ingenuity's primary mission was to show that aerial exploration is possible on Mars despite its thin atmosphere, which is just 1% as dense as that of Earth at sea level. The helicopter wrapped up that task over the course of five flights in the spring of 2021, then transitioned to an extended mission on which it's serving as a scout for Perseverance.
Ingenuity has now traveled a total of 24,867 feet (7,479 m) and stayed airborne for nearly 62 minutes during its 37 Red Planet flights, according to the mission's flight log. Those numbers should continue to increase for a while, for the chopper remains in good health, team members have said.
Ingenuity's success is paving the way for future rotorcraft missions to the Red Planet. JPL is developing concepts for larger, more ambitious Mars helicopters that would gather science data, for example. And NASA plans to launch two Ingenuity-like craft to the Red Planet later in the 2020s to help bring Perseverance's samples home to Earth.
The baseline plan for the Mars sample-return campaign calls for Perseverance to deliver its samples to a rocket-equipped lander. That rocket will launch the samples to Mars orbit, where a European spacecraft will snag them and haul them to Earth, perhaps as early as 2033.
The helicopters will fly on the lander as a backup: If Perseverance isn't able to deliver the samples itself, the choppers will ferry them to the lander from depots on Jezero's floor. (Perseverance is taking two samples from each of its target rocks; it will store one set of samples on its body and cache the other set in depots.)
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.