CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASAâ€™s little Mars helicopter has gotten a reprieve.
Instead of wrapping up flight tests at the beginning of May, NASA is giving its Ingenuity helicopter at least an extra month to tackle tough new terrain and serve as a scout for its companion rover, Perseverance.
Officials announced the flight extension Friday, following three short flights in under two weeks for the $85 million tech demo. Soon afterward, there was more good news: Ingenuity - the first powered aircraft to soar at another planet - had aced its fourth flight at Mars.
For Fridayâ€™s trip, Ingenuity traveled 872 feet (266 meters) at a height of 16 feet (5 meters) for two minutes - considerably farther and longer than before. An attempt Thursday had failed because of a known software error.
On its fifth flight in another week or so, the 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) chopper will move to a new airfield on Mars, allowing the rover to finally start focusing on its own rock-sampling mission. The rover is seeking signs of ancient life at Jezero Crater, home to a lush lakebed and river delta billions of years ago.
The helicopter team at NASAâ€™s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, expects to chalk up a sixth and seventh flight in May. The previous limit had been five. If all goes well, the helicopter mission could go even longer.
â€śIngenuity loves Mars,â€ť project manager MiMi Aung told reporters. â€śIt takes off and I almost feel the freedom that it feels.â€ť
Now Perseverance will take priority, scoping out the rocks around the Feb. 18 landing site. Ingenuity hitched a ride to Mars on the roverâ€™s belly, launching from Cape Canaveral last summer. Managers expect the rover to collect its first sample in July for return to Earth in a decade.
The rover will continue to relay data and pictures from the helicopter, but stop taking its own chopper shots. The two spacecraft must be within a half-mile of each other, for communication relay.
Designed to operate on Mars for 30 days, Ingenuity probably can survive the freezing Martian nights - and repeated flights in the extremely thin atmosphere - for at least another few months.
â€śWe really do expect some finite life,â€ť Aung said, â€śand so it will be a race between how long these parts surprise us in surviving.â€ť
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