Mars helicopter Ingenuity soars higher than ever on 35th Red Planet flight

NASA's Ingenuity helicopter keeps raising the bar for Red Planet flight. 

The 4-pound (1.8 kilograms) Ingenuity soared 46 feet (14 meters) above Mars' red dirt on Saturday (Dec. 3), setting a new altitude record on its 35th off-Earth flight.

The little chopper's previous record was 39 feet (12 m), achieved on three previous Mars flights. (You can get a rundown of all 35 Ingenuity sorties in the mission's flight log (opens in new tab).)

Related: Soar over Mars rover tracks with Ingenuity helicopter (video)

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Ingenuity landed with NASA's Perseverance rover on the floor of Jezero Crater in February 2021. The helicopter soon deployed from the rover's belly and embarked on a campaign to show that powered flight is possible in the thin Mars atmosphere.

That initial technology-demonstrating phase lasted less than a month and consisted of just five sorties. But NASA soon granted Ingenuity a mission extension, keeping the rotorcraft flying. Its current objectives center on pushing the envelope of Red Planet flight and performing reconnaissance for Perseverance.

The rover is searching for signs of ancient Mars life on the floor of the 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero, which hosted a lake and a river delta billions of years ago. Perseverance is also collecting and caching a series of samples, which a joint NASA-European Space Agency campaign will return to Earth, perhaps as early as 2033.

Saturday's flight was the first for Ingenuity since Nov. 22 and just the second it has performed since a major software update. That update, which took several weeks to install, "provides Ingenuity two major new capabilities: hazard avoidance when landing and the use of digital elevation maps to help navigate," mission team members wrote in a blog post late last month (opens in new tab).

Ingenuity covered about 49 feet (15 m) of horizontal distance on Saturday's flight, which lasted 52 seconds. The helicopter has now traveled a total of 24,302 feet (7,407 m) and stayed aloft for 59.9 minutes on its 35 Mars sorties, according to the mission flight log.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There (opens in new tab)" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) and on Facebook (opens in new tab)

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com (opens in new tab) and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. 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.