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Mars helicopter's new photos will determine rover's path

NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity captures a photo of its shadow as it flies for the seventh time on the Red Planet. Photo courtesy of NASA
NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity captures a photo of its shadow as it flies for the seventh time on the Red Planet. Photo courtesy of NASA

ORLANDO, Fla., July 27 (UPI) -- The next chapter of Mars exploration awaits images from the Ingenuity helicopter of an ancient rocky ridge at which scientists hope to find signs of ancient, alien life.

The new images are expected as the tiny, 4-pound Ingenuity breaks records for interplanetary exploration. But the aircraft also is nearing the limits of its design, Teddy Tzanetos, operations lead for Ingenuity, said in an interview.

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The aircraft flew 254 yards Sunday, longer than a football field plus end zones. It hovered in four places to obtain dual images of outcrops along the so-called Raised Ridges feature in Jezero Crater, where the Perseverance rover may drill rocks soon.

The flight set several records for Ingenuity, including duration at 2 minutes, 45 seconds, which neared the maximum time NASA believes the aircraft can fly -- 3 minutes.

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"Every second that we fly we're adding more heat into the motors, right?" Tzanetos said. "We are starting to reach the design limit of how long we can fly."

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Ingenuity has flown more than a mile in total on Mars, much farther than NASA ever expected. It has been functional and responsive for over 100 Martian days, besting the space agency's plan for 31 Martian days of use.

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Ingenuity's new photos will help scientists determine the rover's path over the next few weeks, Tzanetos said.

"Once we've finished our downlink from this flight, and we've assessed our full vehicle health, then we can start discussing where our next flight might be," Tzanetos 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 -- April 19.

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After that, NASA decided the aircraft performed so well that its mission was extended to help scout for the rover, which is hunting for signs of ancient life.

At some point, NASA still expects that Ingenuity's components will fail due to extreme temperature fluctuations on the planet, Tzanetos said. But no one knows how long that will take, he said.

"Despite that risk, the vehicle is just as healthy if not more capable than when we took off initially from the rover because we've gone through two rounds of flight software updates, and those have enabled additional operational capabilities," he said.

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He said that the helicopter's team is working closely with the rover science team to determine what happens next.

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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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