NASA’s tiny Ingenuity helicopter now has 40 off-Earth flights under its belt.
The 4-pound (1.8 kilograms) Ingenuity lifted off yet again on Thursday (Jan. 19), staying aloft for nearly 92 seconds on a sortie that covered about 584 feet (178 meters) of horizontal distance.
The flight repositioned Ingenuity, moving it from “Airfield Z” on the floor of Mars’ Jezero Crater to “Airfield Beta,” according to the mission’s flight log (opens in new tab). That journey took the little chopper over some sand dunes, as imagery captured during the hop shows.
Related: Soar over Mars rover tracks with Ingenuity helicopter (video)
Ingenuity landed with NASA’s car-sized Perseverance Mars rover in February 2021 inside the 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero, which hosted a big lake and a river delta billions of years ago.
Perseverance is searching for signs of past Mars life in the area and collecting dozens of samples that will be returned to Earth as early as 2033 by a joint NASA/European Space Agency campaign.
The plan calls for Perseverance to deliver those samples to a rocket-equipped NASA lander, which will launch the material to Mars orbit. Up there, the sample container will be grabbed by a European probe, which will haul it to Earth. These other spacecraft are scheduled to launch in the mid- to late 2020s.
Over the past few weeks, Perseverance has been dropping sample tubes in a “depot” on Jezero’s floor. The depot is a backup, in case the rover isn’t healthy enough to deliver the samples to the lander later this decade. In that scenario, two small, Ingenuity-like helicopters that launched aboard the lander will collect the depot tubes one by one.
To date, Perseverance has cached eight of a planned 10 sample tubes (opens in new tab) in the depot, which is in a patch of Jezero’s floor the mission team calls Three Forks.
Ingenuity is a technology demonstrator designed to show that aerial exploration is possible on Mars despite the planet’s thin atmosphere. The helicopter’s prime mission covered just five flights, which Ingenuity knocked out shortly after touching down inside Jezero.
The chopper then shifted into an extended mission, during which it has been pushing its flight capabilities and serving as a scout for Perseverance. The helicopter’s aerial observations help the rover team identify potentially interesting scientific targets and pick the best routes through the rugged landscapes on Jezero’s floor.
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) and on Facebook (opens in new tab).