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Mars helicopter Ingenuity aces 15th Red Planet flight

NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity captured this photo of its own shadow during its 15th Red Planet flight, on Nov. 6, 2021.
NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity captured this photo of its own shadow during its 15th Red Planet flight, on Nov. 6, 2021. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity has soared through the Red Planet skies yet again.

The little chopper just completed its 15th Martian sortie, officials with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, which manages the Mars helicopter Ingenuity mission, announced via Twitter Monday night (Nov. 8).

"It flew for 128.8 seconds. Preliminary localization places us within our targeted landing zone. Ingenuity opportunistically took images of science interest and they'll be processed soon," JPL officials wrote in the tweet.

Related: It's getting harder to fly the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars

That tweet did not state when the hop took place, but mission photos show it occurred on Saturday (Nov. 6). That's the date the helicopter's handlers had been targeting, as Ingenuity team lead Teddy Tzanetos of JPL wrote in a blog post published on Friday (Nov. 5), 

Tzanetos also laid out the flight plan in that post, stating that Ingenuity would cover 1,332 feet (406 meters) of horizontal distance, travel at 11.1 mph (17.9 kph) and fly about 39 feet (12 m) above the ground. 

Ingenuity touched down with NASA's Perseverance rover on the floor of the 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, on a mission to demonstrate that aerial exploration of the Red Planet is feasible.

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The 4-pound (1.8 kilograms) copter did just that during a series of five initial flights, then embarked on an extended mission during which it has been performing scouting work for Perseverance. Ingenuity has recently been studying a patch of Jezero called South Séítah, but flight 15 began a journey back toward Wright Brothers Field, the site of the rotorcraft's first-ever Martian flight.

It will take a total of four to seven flights to return to Wright Brothers Field, Tzanetos wrote in Friday's blog post. "Along the way, the project is considering preparing a flight software upgrade for our helicopter which will potentially enable new navigation capabilities onboard, and better prepare Ingenuity for the challenges ahead," he wrote. 

Perseverance will do some similar backtracking. After getting to Wright Brothers Field, the two robotic explorers will travel north together up the east side of the Seitah region. They'll then head west toward the edge of the ancient river delta that made Jezero such an attractive landing spot for the life-hunting Perseverance, Tzanetos wrote.

Flight 15 was Ingenuity's second since solar conjunction, a two-week stretch during which the sun comes between Mars and Earth. NASA stops commanding its Red Planet robots during this time, because our star can corrupt interplanetary communications.

The recent flight was also the second in which Ingenuity spun its rotors at 2,700 revolutions per minute  (RPM), compared to about 2,500 RPM on the first 13 flights. The increase was necessitated by a seasonal shift on Jezero's floor; it's summer there now, and the air is less dense than it was before, Ingenuity team members have explained.

"This flight will generate critical high-RPM motor performance, which the team will use to design and tailor upcoming low-density flights in the months ahead," Tzanetos wrote in Friday's blog post.

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 or Facebook

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Mike Wall
SPACE.COM SENIOR SPACE WRITER — Michael has been writing for Space.com since 2010. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.