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Mars helicopter Ingenuity soars on 16th Red Planet flight

A photograph of the Ingenuity helicopter's shadow on the Martian surface captured during the chopper's 16th flight, on Nov. 21, 2021.
A photograph of the Ingenuity helicopter's shadow on the Martian surface captured during the chopper's 16th flight, on Nov. 21, 2021. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity has aced yet another Red Planet flight, the little chopper's 16th sortie.

The Mars helicopter Ingenuity made its latest hop on Sunday (Nov. 21), about two weeks after its previous flight. According to a description of plans for the flight published on Nov. 16, the sortie was designed to carry Ingenuity one step closer to its original airstrip, dubbed Wright Brothers Field.

"#MarsHelicopter continues to thrive!" mission personnel wrote in a tweet posted Monday (Nov. 22). "The mighty rotorcraft completed its 16th flight on the Red Planet last weekend, traveling 116 meters northeast for 109 seconds. It captured color images during the short hop, but those will come down in a later downlink."

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

Ingenuity's first four flights on Mars, way back in April, all began and ended from Wright Brothers Field. And as originally designed, the mission was not meant to do much more: Ingenuity launched as a technology demonstration mission meant to fly only five times within a month.

But the chopper's early flights went so smoothly that NASA decided to extend its mission and send the little helicopter to scout out ahead of its larger companion, the Perseverance rover. Recent flights have seen Ingenuity cover regions dubbed Raised Ridges and South Séítah, which feature quite rough terrain for the rover to tackle but are particularly intriguing to geologists, hence the use of the airborne scout.

Ingenuity's current series of flights is hopping the little helicopter back to the Perseverance rover's landing site at Octavia E. Butler Landing in preparation for making a new excursion to a location dubbed "Three Forks" for the rover's second science campaign, according to a NASA plan published in June.

Although Ingenuity is showing no signs of flagging, the helicopter's journey has become more difficult during recent flights. The chopper, along with the rest of NASA's Mars fleet, was grounded for a few weeks earlier this autumn as the sun interrupted communications between Earth and the Red Planet.

Meanwhile, as the Martian seasons change, the atmosphere around Ingenuity is thinning, forcing the helicopter crew to increase the spin rate of the chopper's blades.

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.