NASA's Mars Ingenuity helicopter just flew higher than ever before

Many believed Ingenuity would not soar to such heights.
Chris Young
NASA's Ingenuity helicopter on Mars.
NASA's Ingenuity helicopter on Mars.

NASA 

NASA achieved a historic first in April last year when it performed the first-ever controlled flight of an aircraft on Mars.

The Ingenuity helicopter, which hitched a ride to Mars aboard NASA's Perseverance rover, was designed as a proof-of-concept craft that was only expected to fly a total of five times.

Now, the Mars helicopter has achieved flight no. 35, and it has set a new altitude record in the process, reaching a height of 14 meters (46 feet) above the red planet's surface, NASA announced on Twitter.

Another record-breaking NASA Ingenuity flight

NASA's Ingenuity helicopter performed its latest record-breaking flight on Saturday, December 3, beating its previous altitude record of 12 meters (39 feet). Ingenuity's 35th flight lasted a total of 52 seconds.

"An all-time high for the Mars helicopter! Ingenuity completed Flight 35 over the weekend and set a new max altitude record, hitting 46 ft (14 meters) above the Martian surface," NASA wrote on Twitter.

NASA performed Ingenuity's 35th flight to reposition the helicopter to a new location 15 meters (50 feet) from where it was last positioned. The space agency did this so Ingenuity could stay in touch with the Perseverance rover, which has been investigating an ancient river delta on Mars for remnants of microbial life.

NASA designed Ingenuity to show that controlled flight was possible in the thin atmosphere of the red planet and to determine whether future missions could use drone-like aircraft to explore the cosmos. The Ingenuity mission has far exceeded those original goals. It has also served as an aerial scout for the Perseverance team, helping them determine the optimal route for their Mars rover.

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The red, dusty sky's the limit for Mars's Ingenuity helicopter

Last month, NASA beamed a software update across approximately 140 million miles of space (225 million km) from Earth to Mars to allow Ingenuity to handle trickier terrain by employing digital elevation maps and hazard avoidance while landing.

That means the Perseverance ground team is planning for more Ingenuity flights beyond the record-breaking flight 35.

The Ingenuity helicopter has transitioned from a proof-of-concept machine to a fully-fledged aerial scout, providing the scientific community with a new vantage point on Mars in the process.

The Martian helicopter will serve as a guide for upcoming missions that will also use rotorcraft to help uncover the mysteries of the universe. For example, NASA's Dragonfly mission in the 2030s will use a larger version of Ingenuity to explore the atmosphere of Saturn's intriguing moon, Titan, which is another candidate for harboring alien life.