On Sunday (April 25), NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity captured a photo of the agency’s Perseverance rover from the air, providing an unprecedented view of a robotic explorer on the surface of another world.
“Oh hey, there I am! Never thought I’d be the subject of another photographer on Mars. Great capture by the #MarsHelicopter team,” Perseverance’s handlers said via the rover’s official @NASAPersevereTwitter account on Tuesday evening (April 27), when the photo was released.
The first-ever Mars rover, Sojourner, was photographed by NASA’s Pathfinder lander in 1997. Both of those robots, however, were firmly on the ground.
According to NASA officials, the 4-pound (1.8 kilogram) chopper was about 279 feet (85 meters) away from Perseverance when it took the photo, flying at an altitude of about 16.5 feet (5 meters).
The milestone occurred during Ingenuity’s third flight on Mars, its most ambitious sortie to date. On Sunday, ingenuity traveled much faster and farther than it had previously, covering about 330 feet in total (100 m).
Ingenuity is a technology demonstration designed to show that aerial exploration is possible on Mars. The rotorcraft does not carry any science instruments, but NASA officials say it is paving the way for future Mars helicopters that could collect a lot of data on their own and also serve as scouts for rovers and human explorers.
Ingenuity and Perseverance landed together inside Mars’ 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero Crater on Feb. 18. Six weeks later, the helicopter deployed from the car-sized rover’s belly and flew for the first time on April 19, making history as the first-ever powered, controlled flight by an aircraft on a world beyond Earth.
The Ingenuity team hopes to squeeze two more flights into the month-long flight window for the helicopter, which ends in early May. And that window will not be extended; Perseverance, which has been documenting and supporting Ingenuity’s work, will soon have to focus on its own life-hunting and sample-gathering mission.
The team wants to push the little robot’s limits, so the final two hops will likely be even more complex and ambitious than Sunday’s sortie. MiMi Aung of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, who manages the Ingenuity project, said earlier this month that she’d like the helicopter to fly about 2,000 feet (600 meters) on its fifth and final flight, if possible.
That would be a long journey, one that Ingenuity would hopefully document with many more gorgeous photos from the air.