Published: 19th April 2021
NASA's Ingenuity helicopter set to make history as the first controlled flight on another planet
Ingenuity is equipped with rotor blades that are four feet long and spin more rapidly than would be needed on Earth for an aircraft of its size.
America's space agency, will attempt to fly its miniature helicopter--Ingenuity--above the surface of the red planet Mars on Monday (local time). All systems are a go and if all goes to plan, the chopper will lift off and will be the first powered and controlled flight on another planet. Almost 173 million miles away from Earth the test flight will take place on the floor of Martian land called Jezero Crater.
NASA will have Ingenuity lift up about 3 meter, hover for 30 seconds, swivel and then land back on Mars. The flight is due to take place at 3:30 am US eastern daylight time. "The moment our team has been waiting for is almost here," Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung said at a recent briefing at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles.
Data confirming the outcome is not expected to reach NASA until about three hours later. Radio signals take 15 minutes and 27 seconds to cross the current gap between Earth and Mars. NASA hopes to receive images and video of the flight from cameras mounted on the helicopter and on the Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars touched down Martian land on 18 February.
For a nearly seven-month journey through space perseverance carried the helicopter beneath it as it made its descent to Mars' surface in February. And now for ingenuity"s first flight Perseverance will be parked 76 metres away from the mini-helicopter to collect and transmit data. In a nod to the first such feat conducted on Earth, Ingenuity carries a swatch of fabric from the Wright brothers' plane and is affixed under the copters solar panel. "The Wright brothers only had a handful of eyewitnesses to their first flight, but the historic moment was thankfully captured in a great photograph," said Michael Watkins, director of JPL, in a statement.
If the test succeeds, Ingenuity will undertake several additional, lengthier flights in the weeks ahead, though it will need to rest four to five days in between each to recharge its batteries. The helicopter will test flight conditions in the planet's atmosphere, which is colder and has different levels of gravity. The pull of gravity on the Red Planet is less, which helps - but even so engineers have had to build the chopper very light with a mass of just 1.8kg.
Mars possesses much less gravity than Earth, its atmosphere is just 1 per cent as dense. "Mars is hard not only when you land, but when you try to take off from it and fly around, too," said Aung in a statement. Ingenuity is quipped with rotor blades that are four feet long and spin more rapidly than would be needed on Earth for an aircraft of its size.
With this small yet important technology demonstration, the US Space agency is hopeful about how we could eventually transform how we explore some distant worlds. "The primary purpose of this project is to get that detailed engineering data that we can see the performance of the vehicle, and then that data can be used by future projects to make even bigger and better helicopters," said Tim Canham, Ingenuity operations lead at JPL. NASA has been preparing for this mission for over eight years now. The flight was originally scheduled for April 11 but shifted after a command-sequence issue was discovered when the helicopter went through a system of preflight checks with its software.