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Ingenuity helicopter on Mars heads toward ancient river delta on 31st flight

NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter captured this image on Sept. 6, 2022 during its 31st Red Planet flight.
NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter captured this image on Sept. 6, 2022 during its 31st Red Planet flight. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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. 

Related: Mars helicopter Ingenuity: First aircraft to fly on Red Planet

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).  

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com (opens in new tab) and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.