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Ingenuity Mars helicopter soars on 32nd flight

NASA's Ingenuity helicopter captured this photo on its 32nd Martian flight, on Sept. 18, 2022.
NASA's Ingenuity helicopter captured this photo on its 32nd Martian flight, on Sept. 18, 2022. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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).  

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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.