NASA is just days away from firing up the rotors on its Ingenuity helicopter, a process that should lift it off the Martian surface to become the first aircraft to perform a powered flight on another planet.
The maiden flight is expected to take place on or soon after April 8, and the space agency is generating some extra excitement with the release this week of a movie-like trailer (top) highlighting the upcoming event.
Ingenuity arrived on Mars with the Perseverance rover in February 2021 after a six-month journey from Earth. The rover is currently lowering the helicopter onto the Martian surface in preparation for the highly anticipated flight.
The current plan is to send Ingenuity on a total of five flights of increasing difficulty. The maiden flight, for example, will involve the helicopter simply hovering a few meters off the ground to make sure that the machine has arrived in full working order and is operating as it should. Later flights, on the other hand, could see Ingenuity traveling for up to 300 meters.
The mostly autonomous aircraft weighs only 4 pounds (1.8 kg) and features four carbon-fiber rotors, each one a little over a meter long. At its core is a small fuselage containing a downward-facing camera. Solar cells and batteries provide the Ingenuity with power, and an internal heater will enable it to deal with Mars’ bitterly cold nights.
“The Wright Brothers showed that powered flight in Earth’s atmosphere was possible, using an experimental aircraft,” Håvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said recently. “With Ingenuity, we’re trying to do the same for Mars.”
The main aim of Ingenuity’s mission is to test the technology to show that it’s possible to fly a rotorcraft in Mars’ super-thin atmosphere, and that it’s able to withstand the red planet’s very cold nights.
Assuming everything goes to plan, the tests will lay the groundwork for more advanced space helicopters that can fly close to the Martian surface to look for useful research sites, and also to collect data for mapping routes for future rovers sent to Mars.