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NASA extends Mars helicopter mission

May 1, 2021

Ingenuity, the first ever human-built aircraft to fly on another planet, has gotten a reprieve after successfully completing four out of five planned flights.

A close up shot of Ingenuity Mars elicopter.
Ingenuity took flight for the first time last weekImage: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Zumapress/picture alliance

NASA announced on Friday that its helicopter, Ingenuity, is getting at least an extra month on Mars to assist in searching for past signs of microbial life.

The four-pound (1.8 kilogram) mini chopper was set to wrap up flight tests at the beginning of May. Instead, it will serve as a scout for its companion rover, Perseverance.

If all goes well, Ingenuity's mission could go even longer, NASA officials said. 

The helicopter is due to "embark on a new operations demo phase, exploring how aerial scouting & other functions might benefit future exploration," NASA said on Twitter. 

What is the goal for Ingenuity's mission?

"We're going to gather information on the operational support capability of the helicopter while Perseverance focuses on its science mission," Lori Glaze, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, told reporters Friday.

Perseverance will take priority, scoping out the rocks around the February 18 landing site.The two spacecraft must be within a kilometer (half-mile) of one another for communication relay.

The operations could scope out the best paths for explorers to cross, reaching locations that aren't otherwise possible.

Ingenuity expected to 'cross the limit'

"Ingenuity loves Mars,'' project manager MiMi Aung told reporters. "It takes off and I almost feel the freedom that it feels."

The chopper successfully performed the fourth of its five initially planned flights on Friday. The fifth is planned in the coming days.

NASA's helicopter team expects to achieve a sixth and seventh flight in May. The previous limit had been five.

The extreme conditions on the Red Planet can pose a challenge for spacecraft, with up to minus -90 degrees Celsius ( -130 degrees Fahrenheit) at night. 

In February, the rover arrived on Mars aboard the Perseverance rover, after travelling 472 million kilometers (293.287 million miles) over 203 days of flight. 

fb/aw (AFP, AP, dpa)