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Mars helicopter Ingenuity soars through challenging 12th flight on Red Planet

NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity made its 12th Red Planet flight on Monday (Aug. 16), during which the little chopper served as eyes in the sky for its larger companion, the Perseverance rover.

The flight was designed to serve as reconnaissance for the rover's continuing explorations of a region dubbed South Séítah, according to a flight plan NASA posted before the attempt that called the sortie "ambitious."

"Flying over Séítah South carries substantial risk because of the varied terrain," Ingenuity scientists wrote in the plan. "When we choose to accept the risks associated with such a flight, it is because of the correspondingly high rewards. Knowing that we have the opportunity to help the Perseverance team with science planning by providing unique aerial footage is all the motivation needed."

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A photograph from Ingenuity's 12th flight, conducted on Aug. 16, 2021, shows the silhouette of the helicopter on the rippled surface of Mars. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Unlike most of its recent flights, this sortie saw Ingenuity make a round trip. That choice matched the flight's purpose. While the helicopter had been focused on keeping ahead of Perseverance, this time Ingenuity was gathering detailed scouting information for the rover.

That's because while flying over South Séítah is risky for the little chopper, driving through the region is also dangerous for the Perseverance rover. But the region is also full of intriguing rocks that Perseverance's science team would love to study up close.

So the 10 or so color photographs and the stereo scene that Ingenuity was directed to capture during its flight will guide Perseverance scientists as they decide where to point the rover. After Perseverance's first sampling attempt failed to capture any rock, the team is looking for a new target to try packing away for a future mission to ferry to Earth.

Ingenuity team members record statistics and notes about each flight in a log book; this spread shows the entries for the helicopter's ninth and 10th flights. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

During its first 11 flights, Ingenuity had flown a total of about 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers) and spent nearly 19 minutes in the Martian skies, according to tallies provided by NASA. The 12th flight added nearly 1,500 feet (450 meters) and 169 seconds to that total.

Ingenuity has vastly exceeded its original directive, to make five flights around its initial deployment site over the course of a month to prove that flying a rotorcraft on Mars is possible.

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. 

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Meghan Bartels

Meghan is a senior writer at Space.com and has more than five years' experience as a science journalist based in New York City. She joined Space.com in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.