NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has flown again, taking to the Martian skies for the second time in as many weeks.
Ingenuity traveled about 308 feet (94 meters) on Sunday (Sept. 18), staying aloft for more than 55 seconds and reaching a maximum speed of 10.6 mph (17.1 kph), according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (opens in new tab) (JPL) in Southern California, which manages the Mars helicopter’s mission.
Sunday’s flight was the 32nd for Ingenuity overall and its second this month; the 4-pound (1.8 kilograms) rotorcraft also lifted off on Sept. 6.
Related: Mars helicopter Ingenuity: First aircraft to fly on Red Planet
That earlier flight took Ingenuity closer to an ancient river delta on the floor of Mars’ Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) hole in the ground that the helicopter and its robotic partner, the Perseverance rover, have been exploring since February 2021. Presumably, Sunday’s sortie continued that progress, as Ingenuity team members have said that getting to the delta is a near-term priority.
Perseverance has been studying the delta for several months now. The car-sized rover has collected four rock samples from the formation since July, two of them from a stone that’s rich in organic molecules, the carbon-containing building blocks of life.
Researchers will be able to study that intriguing material in detail here on Earth, if all goes according to plan: NASA and the European Space Agency are teaming up to bring the rover’s samples to our planet, perhaps as early as 2033.
The sample-return architecture includes two Ingenuity-like helicopters capable of carrying sample tubes from one or more depots on Jezero’s floor to the rocket that will launch them off the Red Planet. (That rocket, and the other robots that will help get the samples to Earth, remain in development.) It’s unclear at the moment if the choppers will be pressed into such service; Perseverance may end up delivering the tubes to the rocket by itself.
Ingenuity initially embarked on a five-flight demonstration mission designed to show that rotorcraft flight is possible in the thin Martian atmosphere. The helicopter quickly aced that task and shifted into an extended mission, during which it’s serving as a scout for Perseverance.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out There (opens in new tab)” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or on Facebook (opens in new tab).