NASA Preps Mars Helicopter for First Flight

NASA’s targeted April 8 launch of its Ingenuity helicopter on Mars would be the first-ever powered, controlled flight on another planet.

NASA Mars helicopter Ingenuity will be the first aircraft to attempt powered, controlled flight on another planet. The rotorcraft arrived on Mars attached to the belly of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech)

(CN) — NASA’s Mars helicopter will soon make its way to an airfield on the desert world where it will attempt a flight test that could shape space exploration for decades to come, scientists with the U.S. space agency said Tuesday.

“We’re focused today on that Wright brothers moment,” NASA director of planetary science Bobby Braun said in a virtual presentation Tuesday in reference to the American aviation pioneers. “If we can scout Mars from the air with its thin atmosphere, we can do so on Titan or Venus. The future of space exploration is solid and strong.”

The four-pound, remotely piloted drone helicopter named Ingenuity will be tasked with scouting small sections of Mars’ rocky terrain once the rotorcraft successfully orients itself in the planet’s thin atmosphere.

Ingenuity arrived on the red planet by hitching a ride on NASA’s Perseverance rover, which touched down on Mars’ Jezero Crater on Feb. 18 after a nearly 300-million-mile journey from Earth.

A carbon-fiber debris shield protecting the helicopter was recently detached, exposing the craft’s folded, stowed-away position on Perseverance’s underbelly and setting it up for the days-long drive to an airfield near the rover’s landing site.

Bob Balaram, Ingenuity chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, said in a virtual conference Tuesday the agency is targeting an April 8 launch for the rotorcraft.

After detaching fully from Perseverance and getting into position on the airfield, Ingenuity will have 31 Earth days to test sensors, charge its batteries and conduct its flight test, which is a formidable challenge given the conditions on Mars, Balaram said.

The red planet’s gravity is approximately one-third that of Earth’s and its atmosphere is 1% as dense as what humanity experiences on our planet’s surface. Unprotected electrical components on the rotorcraft can also freeze on the coldest Martian nights, where temperatures can dip to minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Every step we have taken since this journey began six years ago has been uncharted territory in the history of aircraft,” Balaram 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.”

This graphic shows the general activities the team behind NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter hopes to accomplish on a given test flight on the red planet. The helicopter will have 31 Earth days (30 sols, or Martian days) for its test flight program. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech)

On a planet that receives half the amount of solar energy during daytime as Earth, Ingenuity also faces the challenge of capturing enough juice to power internal heaters, rotors and other systems.

Lori Glaze, NASA’s planetary science division director, said Tuesday that if successful, Ingenuity’s flight on Mars could pave the way for future missions flying over cliffs on other planets, exploring caves and scouting paths through deep craters which would be inaccessible to current rover designs.

“When NASA’s Sojourner rover landed on Mars in 1997, it proved that roving the red planet was possible and completely redefined our approach to how we explore Mars. Similarly, we want to learn about the potential Ingenuity has for the future of science research,” Glaze said in a statement. “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.”

To both honor the Wright brothers’ contribution to aviation and mark Ingenuity’s leap into planetary exploration, the rotorcraft carries a postage stamp-sized fabric from the Wright brothers’ first successful aircraft, the Flyer.

The Apollo 11 mission also carried a piece of the fabric along with a splinter of wood from the Flyer to the moon and back in 1969.

Perseverance, the six-wheeled, SUV-sized rover — built and operated by NASA scientists and engineers at JPL — is tasked with using its high-tech robotic arm and drill to collect soil and rock samples from what scientists believe was once a flourishing river delta and lake. 

NASA scientists have said the 28-mile-wide crater once hosted a Lake Tahoe-sized body of water that may have left behind clues of single-celled organisms and microbial life that could’ve populated the planet. 

The Perseverance rover isn’t alone in the desert world. NASA’s 1-ton, nuclear-powered Curiosity rover has been crawling across the interior of Mars’ Gale Crater since 2012.

Along with capturing stunning images of the Martian surface, Curiosity is probing geological sites for complex microbes and evidence that life-sustaining conditions once existed there.

A recent NASA-funded study found the desert world could be storing up to 99% of its water in the planet’s crust.

The red planet’s ancient water system once held enough water to cover Mars entirely in an ocean as deep as 4,900 feet in some sections. But the system dried up more than 3 billion years ago

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