NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter captures breathtaking image of Martian sunset (photo)

The Mars helicopter Ingenuity recently took to the air on its 45th flight, covering almost one-third of a mile (0.5 kilometer) and capturing a magnificent sunset shot over the Red Planet.

Ingenuity is still making short flights around the Martian crater Jezero, continuing to collect data far beyond its expected operating life. Resourcefulness arrived on the Red Planet aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed on the Jezero floor in February 2021.

Ingenuity first flew two months later in April 2021 and was initially tasked with just a few test flights to prove its groundbreaking technology. However, exceeding NASA’s expectations, the Ingenuity mission has expanded to serve as a scout for Perseverance, which is looking for signs of ancient life on Mars and collecting samples for a future return to Earth. To date, Ingenuity has flown a total of 46 flights with a total distance of 6.3 miles (10.1 km).

Related: The Perseverance rover spots an Ingenuity helicopter resting on a sand dune (pictured)

Flights 45 and 46 occurred only three days apart on February 19. 22 and Feb. 25, the 47th flight is expected from day to day. Depending on the relative position of Earth and Mars, a data transfer between the two planets can take anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes to reach its destination. Because of this, the Ingenuity is designed to take off, fly and land on its own. Mission controllers program each flight and then must wait for confirmation that Ingenuity has landed safely. Built-in cameras capture images used to determine the next Ingenuity and Perserverance steps.

The high-resolution Ingenuity color camera is positioned 22 degrees below the horizon. Thus, images transmitted to NASA from a 4-pound (1.8 kg) helicopter are mostly focused on the ground, looking for interesting geological features and potential obstacles ahead.

However, sometimes a piece of the Martian sky appears in one of the Ingenuity photos, which serves as a reminder that the rotorcraft gives us a whole new view of the Red Planet. The helicopter took such a picture during its 45th flight, but with an even rarer object in the frame – the sun.

The photo shows the sun hovering slightly above the horizon of the hilltops in the distance, captured as the sun sets on Martian Ingenuity 714, or sol. The rays that hit the photo help illuminate the rolling alien landscape of sand and rocks inside Jezero Crater, and it almost looks like a photo you could take from a desert here on Earth. And this is its beauty.

These apparent similarities form the basis of why we explore space at all. That a photograph of a sunset from another planet can remind us so strongly of our own highlights the fine line between our life-sustaining Earth and other lifeless worlds orbiting our Sun and beyond. This symbolizes the very nature of Perserverance’s search for ancient Martian life and raises the question of what sunsets on other worlds might look like – and whether humanity will ever see them.

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