With over 50 Mars flights under its belt, NASA's Ingenuity helicopter continues to impress.
During its 51st flight on Saturday (April 22), Ingenuity took a photo of its companion robot, the Perseverance rover, from 40 feet (12 meters) above the Martian surface. In the photo, Perseverance can be seen motionless in the planet's red soil in the background, nearly indistinguishable from the large rocks strewn across the Red Planet landscape.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) shared the image on Twitter on Monday (April 24), adding that Ingenuity's 51st flight lasted for just under 137 seconds and saw the small helicopter travel for a total of 617 feet (188 m).
Related: Mars helicopter Ingenuity: First aircraft to fly on Red Planet
The two robots on the surface of Mars have been taking turns snapping impressive photos of one another. Just last week, Perseverance took a picture of Ingenuity showing an impressive amount of Martian dust built up on the helicopter's rotors.
Ingenuity's most recent hop came just nine days after its 50th flight. The 4-pound (1.8 kilogram) dual-rotor helicopter was originally intended to make just five flights in the thin Martian atmosphere to determine if flight was feasible on the Red Planet.
Since its first flight in April 2021, the plucky helicopter has continued to prove itself capable of repeated takeoffs and landings. "She has blown out of the water any sort of metric of success," Theodore Tzanetos, Ingenuity team lead at JPL, told Space.com in March 2023.
Because of the distance between Mars and Earth, remote piloting is impossible, so Ingenuity flies pre-programmed flight paths.
Ingenuity has become somewhat of a scout for Perseverance, helping identify locations of interest for the rover on its mission to seek out signs of ancient life on the Red Planet.
Aside from posing for Ingenuity's aerial photos, Perseverance has been busy collecting soil and rock samples that will one day be returned to Earth via the ambitious Mars Sample Return mission.
That campaign, a joint venture between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), will likewise send helicopters to Mars to retrieve the samples Perseverance has been stashing away in a sample depot if need be. (The baseline plan is for Perseverance to deliver its sample tubes to a rocket-toting lander itself; the helicopters will do this work if the rover isn't up to the task.)
An ESA-built Earth Return Orbiter will finally send the samples back to Earth for a landing in the Utah desert in 2033, according to current plans.
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How exactly does that advance the cause of pure science or justify the expense?