Mars helicopter Ingenuity soars through Red Planet's summer air after radio blackout (video)

NASA's helicopter Ingenuity has successfully completed its 14th test flight on the Red Planet, demonstrating its ability to fly in summer weather conditions on Mars. 

As temperatures at little chopper's Jezero Crater landing site get warmer, the aircraft's rotors must turn faster to achieve flight. The latest flight for the Mars helicopter Ingenuity, conducted on Sunday (Oct. 24), was a relatively short and simple "hop," designed to test its ability to fly with slightly higher rotor speeds — 2,700 revolutions per minute (RPM) rather than the usual 2,537 RPM. 

Ingenuity "successfully performed a short hop in its current airfield to test out higher rpm settings so it can fly in lower atmospheric densities on the Red Planet," NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) announced in a tweet on Monday (Oct. 25). "This test also leaves the team room for an rpm increase if needed for future flights." JPL is overseeing the Mars Perseverance rover mission, which includes Ingenuity, for NASA from the agency's center in Pasadena, California.

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

This photo from NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity shows the drone's shadow on the Martian surface during its 14th flight, which occurred Oct. 24, 2021. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The helicopter was originally scheduled to complete this test flight on Sept. 18, but was delayed due to an anomaly found during a pre-flight checkout. At the time, Ingenuity detected an issue in two of its small flight-control servo motors, which adjust the pitch of the rotors, allowing the chopper to control its orientation and position during flight. 

While the team was unable to replicate the issue during subsequent tests on Sept. 21 and Sept. 23, Ingenuity remained grounded until now because Mars experienced solar conjunction, which occurs every two years when the sun falls directly between Earth and the Red Planet, disrupting communications between the planets for about two weeks. However, as of Thursday (Oct. 21), Ingenuity was deemed ready to fly. 

"Now that conjunction is over, #MarsHelicopter can attempt flight 14. Ingenuity successfully performed a 50 rpm spin test this week & will do a short hop no earlier than Oct. 23," NASA's JPL said in another tweet. "This is to test out flying in lower atmospheric densities on the Red Planet."

During conjunction, NASA stopped sending commands to Ingenuity and its other Red Planet robots, including the Perseverance rover. However, the Martian helicopter and its partner, Perseverance, exchanged basic system health updates roughly once a week. This data was transmitted back to Earth after conjunction, allowing teams to evaluate how Ingenuity performed over the last couple of weeks of inactivity.

Ingenuity was originally expected to fly only five times on the Red Planet to test whether powered flight was even possible in Mars’ thin atmosphere. However, after its initial success, NASA transitioned to using Ingenuity to scout terrain for the Perseverance rover and the tenacious helicopter has completed a total of 14 flights. 

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Samantha Mathewson
Contributing Writer

Samantha Mathewson joined as an intern in the summer of 2016. She received a B.A. in Journalism and Environmental Science at the University of New Haven, in Connecticut. Previously, her work has been published in Nature World News. When not writing or reading about science, Samantha enjoys traveling to new places and taking photos! You can follow her on Twitter @Sam_Ashley13.