NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter prepares for first flight on Mars

Publish: 9:08 PM, March 24, 2021 | Update: 9:08:PM, March 24, 2021

WASHINGTON, – NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter will attempt its first powered, controlled flight on Mars no earlier than April 8, which will be the first of an aircraft on another planet, NASA said Tuesday.

The 1.8-kg rotorcraft is attached to the belly of NASA’s Perseverance rover, which touched down on Mars on Feb. 18, in search of signs of ancient life. The rover currently is in transit to the “airfield” where Ingenuity will attempt to fly. Once deployed, Ingenuity will have 30 Martian days, or 31 Earth days, to conduct its test flight campaign, according to NASA.

Flying in a controlled manner on Mars is far more difficult than flying on Earth, said NASA. The red planet has significant gravity, about one-third that of the Earth’s, but its atmosphere is just 1 percent as dense as the Earth’s at the surface.

During Martian daytime, the planet’s surface receives only about half the amount of solar energy that reaches the Earth during its daytime, and nighttime temperatures can drop as low as minus 90 degrees Celsius, which can freeze and crack unprotected electrical components. To fly in the Mars environment, the Ingenuity helicopter has to be lightweight.

To survive the frigid Martian nights, it must have enough energy to power internal heaters, according to NASA. “Every step we have taken since this journey began six years ago has been uncharted territory in the history of aircraft,” said Bob Balaram, chief engineer for NASA’s Mars helicopter.

“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,” he said. Ingenuity, the first helicopter ever to fly on another world, could pave the way for extensive exploration of the Martian skies, said NASA.