March 23, 2023

Early Monday, a robotic helicopter that NASA sent to Mars will attempt to soar a few meters in the air, hover, and come back down. With that simple feat, it would be the first machine to fly through the blurry air of the red planet. NASA officials compared it to the Wright brothers’ 1903 flight in Kitty Hawk, NC. There has never been anything like an airplane or a helicopter launched on another world.

The Mars helicopter named Ingenuity flew from Earth under NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed in February on a mission to search for signs of ancient life near a parched river delta. A few weeks ago, Perseverance dropped Ingenuity on a flat Martian plain before flight tests.

Ingenuity is small. Its main body is about the size of a softball with four spindle-shaped legs protruding from it. At the top are two sets of blades, each about a meter from tip to tip. They rotate in opposite directions at around 2,500 revolutions per minute. These are the fast speeds required to create enough lift for Ingenuity to take off from the ground.

At the Ingenuity site on Mars, located in an ancient crater called Jezero, it is in the middle of the day, around 12:30 p.m. local Mars solar time. (The time zones on the red planet don’t yet have names.)

For the people on earth, this means around 3:30 a.m. east coast time on Monday. But nobody on earth will know for hours whether the flight was successful or failed, or if anything happened at all. Neither Ingenuity nor Perseverance will contact NASA at this point.

Instead, the two spaceships conduct the flight autonomously and carry out commands sent to them on Sunday. Perseverance later sends data back to Earth via a spaceship orbiting Mars.

NASA TV will broadcast from the control room of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory starting at 6:15 a.m. Eastern Time as the data reaches Earth. You can check it out on the NASA website.

Additional information will be made available at a press conference on Monday at 2:00 p.m. East Coast Time.

The first flight is said to be a modest up and down, rising to a height of just 10 feet. There it hovers for up to 30 seconds and then descends to land. The integrated camera records images and helps the navigation system to maintain the helicopter’s level. On the ground, which is more than 200 feet away, the Perseverance’s cameras are also recording the flight.

If the test flight is successful, up to four more can be attempted. The first three are used to test the basic skills of the helicopter. The third flight could fly a distance of 160 feet and then return.

The last two flights could continue to fly, but NASA officials didn’t want to speculate on how much.

NASA plans to complete testing within 30 Mars days of Ingenuity being discontinued in order for Perseverance to begin the bulk of its $ 2.7 billion mission. It will leave the helicopter behind and head towards a river delta on the edge of the Jezero crater, where sediments and possibly chemical clues to ancient life will be preserved.

Ingenuity was a $ 85 million add-on project, but not a prerequisite for Perseverance to be a success.

There isn’t much air to push against to create buoyancy.

On the surface of Mars, the atmosphere is only 1/100 as dense as that of Earth. The lower gravity – a third of what you’re feeling here – helps get into the air. However, taking off from the Martian surface is akin to flying at an altitude of 100,000 feet on Earth. No helicopter on our planet has soared this high, and it is more than twice the typical altitude of a jetliner.

Until 1997, all spacecraft sent to the surface of Mars were stationary landers. But that year the Pathfinder mission included something revolutionary for NASA: a robot with wheels. That rover, Sojourner, was about the size of a short filing cabinet, and planetary scientists quickly saw the benefits of being able to move around the Martian landscape. Four more NASA rovers, including Perseverance, have since followed to the red planet.

Ingenuity is essentially the aerial counterpart of Sojourner, a demonstration of a novel technology that may be used on a larger scale on later missions. Proof that the helicopter can fly on Mars can help inform flight attempts on other worlds in our solar system such as Titan, Saturn’s moon, on which NASA plans to send a nuclear-powered quadcopter.