After Wright Brother’s first flight on earth, NASA is repeating history but there on Mars. Millions of miles away and more than a century later, the 4-pound Ingenuity helicopter will use its two pairs of 4-foot blades to reach nearly 10 feet (3 meters) up through the thin Martian atmosphere. The minuscule helicopter will hover for 30 seconds, capture images, make a turn, and return to the ground. “The first flight is special. It’s by far the most important flight that we plan to do,” said Havard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is currently roaming around Mars, has dropped off the mini helicopter Ingenuity ahead of the four-pound aircraft’s historic first flight. Ingenuity dropped four inches from the belly of Perseverance to the surface of Mars. Now that Ingenuity is separated from Perseverance, it will need to power and heat itself. Ingenuity will draw power from the sun using its onboard solar panels, but its heater will have the tough job of keeping the helicopter warm through the cold nights on Mars, where temperatures can go as low as negative 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Bob Balaram, Ingenuity’s chief engineer.
“It isn’t just a helicopter; it’s also a spacecraft, combining those requirements was the challenge. In some ways, it’s like trying to build a tractor to compete in a Formula One car race," said Ben Pipenberg, an aeromechanical engineer at AeroVironment Inc. in Simi Valley, Calif., a speciality drone, and tactical missile company that helped design and build Ingenuity.
Presuming Ingenuity survives the harsh conditions, the helicopter will aim to take the first powered flight on another planet, which is currently set for “no earlier” than April 11th. NASA outlined the helicopter’s flight zone, which NASA outlined on March 23rd. The plan is for Ingenuity to attempt as many as five test flights within 30 days before settling down on the surface of Mars for eternity.
NASA has plenty of experience operating wheeled rovers on Mars, but it's never tried to fly a helicopter on the red planet before. The Ingenuity rotorcraft will get a chance to make history in April by flying the Martian skies, but first, the Perseverance rover had to drop it off on the ground. As of Saturday, Ingenuity is on its own. "Mars helicopter touchdown confirmed," NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab tweeted along with a photo showing the helicopter a short distance away from the rover.