NASA's Ingenuity chopper has ascended to the Martian skies. Ingenuity made its 32nd flight on Sunday, which was also its second this month. The 4-pound rotorcraft had previously taken off on September 6.
According to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, which oversees the Mars helicopter's mission, Ingenuity traveled roughly 308 feet on Sunday (Sept. 18), remaining in the air for more than 55 seconds, and achieving a top speed of 10.6 mph.
That previous flight brought Ingenuity closer to an ancient river delta on the surface of Mars' Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide crater that the helicopter and its robotic companion, the Perseverance rover, have been studying since February 2021. Sunday's sortie presumably continued that progress, as Ingenuity team members have stated that reaching the delta is a near-term objective.
Perseverance has been exploring the delta for months. Since July, the car-sized rover has collected four rock samples from the formation, two of which are rich in organic compounds, the carbon-containing building blocks of life.
If everything goes as planned, scientists will be able to examine that fascinating material in great detail here on Earth. NASA and the European Space Agency are collaborating to send the rover's samples to our planet, maybe as soon as 2033.
Two helicopters modeled after Ingenuity are part of the sample-return architecture, and they may transport sample tubes from one or more depots on Jezero's floor to the rocket that will launch them off the Red Planet.
An earlier idea that called for an ESA "fetch rover" to land on its own lander was dropped in favor of a mission redesign, according to NASA officials involved with the Mars sample return (MSR) program on July 27.
NASA's Perseverance rover, which is expected to be operational when a NASA MSR lander lands on Mars in 2031, will now be charged with transporting the samples it is gathering and storing to a Mars ascent vehicle. In the event that this fails, two helicopters similar to Ingenuity, which landed with Perseverance last year, will be available as backup options to pick up the caches themselves.
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.