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NASA targets April 11 for first powered, controlled Mars Ingenuity helicopter flight

The data returned, if the flight test succeeds, could benefit future exploration of Mars by astronauts, according to the space agency.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA will attempt something that has never been done before this April-- the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.

That's right, the Mars Perseverance Rover wasn't alone when it touched down on the red planet in February. Onboard was a stowaway, of sorts, called the Ingenuity Mars helicopter. 

With the flight zone chosen and the debris shield protecting the equipment dropped, Inegunity will now be delivered to the planet's surface in preparation to explore.

The entire process of freeing the helicopter from the rover's belly will take at least 10 Martian days, which are one hour longer than days on Earth. With that in mind, and other daunting milestones to reach, NASA says it is targeting no earlier than April 11 for Ingenuity to take flight. 

Once deployed, the four-pound rotocraft has a limited test flight duration of 31 Earth days.

“Every step we have taken since this journey began six years ago has been uncharted territory in the history of aircraft,” Bob Balaram, Mars Helicopter chief engineer at JPL said. “And while getting deployed to the surface will be a big challenge, surviving that first night on Mars alone, without the rover protecting it and keeping it powered, will be an even bigger one.” 

NASA's Ingenuity helicopter is the first aircraft that humanity has sent to another planet to attempt such a feat. The data returned, if the flight test succeeds, could benefit future exploration of Mars by astronauts, according to the space agency.

“Aptly named, Ingenuity is a technology demonstration that aims to be the first powered flight on another world and, if successful, could further expand our horizons and broaden the scope of what is possible with Mars exploration," Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters said.

But before history can be made, the Mars rover will first need to deliver Ingenuity in the middle of the Martian real estate pre-designated to be the helicopter's air field. The rotocraft's deployment and the wait to see if it survives its first night alone in the red planet's frigid temperatures comes next.

The final step will be for the helicopter to hover at 10 feet above the surface for 30 seconds before touching back down. Several hours later, NASA says we will be able to, hopefully, get the first look at data and imagery to ensure the flight was a success.

"What I look forward to the most... we're going to get that first shot of Ingenuity on the surface of Mars on her own," NASA Preserve integration lead Farah Alibay said.

Here are five key facts to know about Ingenuity:

  • Ingenuity is a technology demonstration that will look to test a new capability for the first time.
  • Its powered, controlled flight on the red planet will be difficult since Mars’ atmosphere, temperatures and gravity greatly differ from that on Earth.
  • The helicopter is on its own when it comes to traversing the planet's surface due to the interplanetary distance. This means Ingenuity will make its own decisions based on engineering technology.
  • Flying over Mars’ surface will provide insight into operating a helicopter on the red planet.
  • If successful, the technology from Ingenuity could enable future robotic, payload and human missions to Mars.

To honor the "ingenuity" of the Wright Brothers, the first to conduct a powered, controlled flight on Earth in 1903, a small swatch of fabric that covered the wing of their first aircraft is now aboard the Mars helicopter.

"An insulative tape was used to wrap the small swatch of fabric around a cable located underneath the helicopter’s solar panel," NASA wrote.

It's something the NASA JPL team says it is very proud to have aboard it's rotocraft to honor the original pioneers.

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