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Mars helicopter Ingenuity flies for 17th time on Red Planet

NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter acquired this image of its own shadow during its 17th Red Planet flight, on Dec. 5, 2021.
NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter acquired this image of its own shadow during its 17th Red Planet flight, on Dec. 5, 2021. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity soared through the Red Planet skies for the 17th time last weekend, but we'll have to wait a little longer yet to get a full accounting of the flight.

The 4-pound (1.8 kilograms) chopper appeared to hit all of its marks during the 614-foot-long (187 meters) traverse, which occurred on Dec. 5. But the communication link between Ingenuity and its robotic partner, NASA's Mars rover Perseverance, was disrupted during the helicopter's descent, mission team members said. (All of Ingenuity's data and photos are relayed first to the Perseverance rover, and then to Earth through a Mars orbiter.)

"All available telemetry during and after the flight suggests that the activity was a success and that the loss of link was due to a challenging radio configuration between Perseverance and Ingenuity during landing," Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity team lead at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, wrote in a blog post (opens in new tab) on Dec. 7.

"However, before planning our next flight, we need [to] transfer the missing data from Flight 17 from helicopter to rover, and then to Earth, so we can confirm vehicle health," Tzanetos added.

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

Two factors apparently led to the communication dropout, Tzanetos explained. One was terrain: As Ingenuity descended toward its landing spot, it became obstructed from Perseverance's perspective by a 13-foot-tall (4 m) hill the team calls "Bras." 

The other issue was the rover's orientation. Ingenuity's radio communications had to cross much of the rover's body, including its power-producing radioisotope thermoelectric generator. 

"When we originally planned Flight 17, we believed that the rover was going to be parked in a specific location and oriented in a certain direction," Tzanetos wrote. "However, Perseverance’s plans change day to day to maximize overall science return. By the time Flight 17 was ready for execution, Perseverance had driven to a new location and parked along a challenging heading for radio communications."

The Ingenuity team received some data from the helicopter on Dec. 5 and got their hands on another batch on Dec. 8. Everything indicates that Ingenuity is healthy and stable, Tzanetos wrote.

Ingenuity and Perseverance landed together on the floor of Mars' Jezero Crater in February 2021. The car-sized rover is hunting for signs of ancient Mars life and collecting samples for future return to Earth. 

Ingenuity was originally tasked with showing that powered flight is possible on Mars. The chopper aced that technology-demonstrating mission long ago and shifted into a new role, which involves scouting Jezero terrain for Perseverance.

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) or on Facebook (opens in new tab)

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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.