Mars helicopter Ingenuity flies low and slow on lucky flight 13

Ingenuity flew for the 13th time on Sept. 4, 2021 on Mars.  (Image credit: NASA)

Number 13 was good luck for NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity, as the tenacious little craft seamlessly completed its 13th flight on the Red Planet on Saturday (Sept. 4). 

Ingenuity, or "Ginny" as it's nicknamed, landed on Mars Feb. 18 tucked inside  NASA's Perseverance rover. The 4-pound (1.8 kilograms) chopper has  flown much longer and farther than mission team members originally expected, now with 13 flights under its belt when it was originally slated to make just a few short technology-demonstrating sorties. 

"Happy Flight the 13th!" NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, which manages Ingenuity's mission, tweeted Saturday about the craft's latest successful Martian journey. 

Related: Watch NASA's Ingenuity helicopter explore Mars' intriguing Raised Ridges

During Ingenuity's 13th flight, the helicopter, which measures just 19 inches (48 centimeters) tall, traveled at7.3 mph (3.3 m/s), slower than the 10 mph (4.3 m/s) speed it maintained on Flight 12. On Saturday's flight, Ingenuity captured "images pointing southwest of the South Seítah region. This aerial scouting continues to aid in planning @NASAPersevere’s next moves," JPL officials said in the same tweet

During this flight, Ingenuity also flew at a lower altitude than during its 12th flight, which also took place in the same region. On Saturday, the craft flew just 26 feet (8 meters) above the Martian surface , according to a flight plan published Sept. 3 ahead of the event. On its 12th flight, Ingenuity cruised about 33 feet (10 m) above the Martian surface. 

Saturday's sortie marked the second time that Ingenuity explored the South Seítah region, which has a variable terrain that Ingenuity team members have previously described as carrying "substantial risk" while being "geologically intriguing."

However, despite the challenges of the region's terrain, the flight seems to have gone off without a hitch. 

The plan for Flight 13 involved scoping out South Seítah further, "to scout an area of outcrops glimpsed in Flight 12 imagery — but we’re taking these new pictures while looking back, pointing in the opposite direction," Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity Team Lead at JPL, wrote in the flight plan

On Flight 12, the helicopter explored the region and took images of ridgelines and outcrops. On Flight 13, the team planned for the craft to instead concentrate on one specific ridgeline and outcrop, Tzanetos added. 

"Another big difference is which way our camera will be pointing. For Flight 13, we’ll be capturing images pointing southwest. And when they’re combined with Flight 12’s northeast perspectives, the overlapping images from a lower altitude should provide valuable insight for Perseverance scientists and rover drive planners," Tzanetos said. 

In further comparing this flight to its predecessor, "it again reinforces just how much we're concentrating our efforts in one small area," Tzanetos said. "On Flight 12 we covered 1,476 feet (450 meters) of Martian ground in 169.5 seconds and took 10 pictures (again — all pointed northeast). On 13, we’ll cover about 690 feet (210 meters) in around 161 seconds and take 10 pictures (pointing southwest)."

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Chelsea Gohd
Senior Writer

Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.