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Mars helicopter begins to scout for Perseverance rover with longest flight

An illustration depicts NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity flying on the Red Planet. Image courtesy of NASA
An illustration depicts NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity flying on the Red Planet. Image courtesy of NASA

ORLANDO, Fla., July 6 (UPI) -- NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity has begun to scout missions for the Perseverance rover, completing its ninth and most challenging flight yet.

NASA announced the "most challenging flight yet" was a success Monday via Twitter.

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Flight nine included a speed record for the aircraft at roughly 11 mph, which NASA called "a high-speed flight across unfriendly terrain, which will take us far away from the rover."

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Ingenuity scanned an area of the Martian Jezero Crater, named the Séítah, where the rover could get bogged down in sand dunes, NASA said in a description of the flight plan.

The space agency planned the flight to help the rover science team with "close-up images of the Séítah terrain that they will otherwise be unable to acquire" to plan the rover's path.

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The flight also pushed the limits of Ingenuity's on-board navigation systems, which use photos of the terrain to confirm its flight path. NASA said that system is not designed to "accommodate high slopes and undulations" found in the Séítah.

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After Ingenuity finishes at the Séítah formations, it next will investigate an area called Raised Ridges for more potential science targets, said Ken Williford, deputy project scientist on the Mars mission.

Ultimately, the mission is to determine if life ever existed on Mars. To that end, Ingenuity truly is a scout now, Williford said.

"Now we can fly out and get a much closer view of rocks we think are very interesting, to assess their science value, well before we have to commit the resources to drive all the way there," he said.

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NASA also can use Ingenuity's images to start doing science early, Williford said.

"Assuming the images are of high quality, we can get scientific guys on those images and we can start making interpretations before the rover and its instruments arrive," he said.

The Mars 2020 mission, including the rover and helicopter, was launched from Florida on July 30 and landed on the Red Planet on Feb. 18. The helicopter made its historic first flight -- the first powered, controlled flight on another planet -- on April 19.

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The Mars helicopter's 12th flight flight went to the geological wonder that is the “South Séítah” region. It climbed 32.8 feet for a total of 169 seconds and flew about 1,476 feet to scout the area for later scrutiny by the land rover.

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