NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter just flew for the 31st time on Mars, acing a short hop that took it closer to an ancient Red Planet river delta.
During the Mars sortie, which occurred on Tuesday (Sept. 6), the 4-pound (1.8 kilograms) Ingenuity flew for nearly 56 seconds and covered about 318 feet (97 meters) of horizontal distance, according to the mission team’s flight log (opens in new tab).
The flight took Ingenuity toward the remnants of a long-dry river delta that the little chopper’s robotic partner, NASA’s Perseverance rover, has been exploring for the past five months or so.
In February 2021, Ingenuity and Perseverance landed together inside the 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero Crater, which harbored that river delta and a big lake billions of years ago.
Perseverance is hunting for signs of ancient Mars life and collecting rock samples for future return to Earth. Ingenuity is serving as a scout, helping the Perseverance team pick the best driving routes and identify scientifically promising rock targets.
That isn’t the role originally assigned to Ingenuity; it’s a technology demonstrator that was designed for a five-flight mission to show that rotorcraft flight is possible in the Martian atmosphere, which is just 1% as thick as that of Earth at sea level.
Ingenuity aced that prime mission and soon was granted an extension to perform its current, more focused reconnaissance work.
Tuesday’s flight was the first for Ingenuity since a 33-second hop on Aug. 20 that covered just 6.5 feet (2 m) of Martian ground. The Aug. 20 sortie was designed primarily to shake dust off Ingenuity’s solar panels and make sure the little robot was still in flying shape after two months of relative inactivity.
Ingenuity had been grounded since June 11, waiting out cold and dusty winter weather 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) or on Facebook (opens in new tab).