NASA set earliest date for first Ingenuity Mars Helicopter flight

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The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter could fly as early as April 8, 2021 provided a series of milestones are achieved, NASA has confirmed.

An illustration of NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter flying on Mars (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The 1.8kg rotorcraft is attached to the underside of NASA’s Perseverance rover, which touched down on Mars on February 18. On March 21, the rover deployed the graphite composite debris shield that protected Ingenuity during landing. According to NASA, the rover is in transit to the 10mx10m ‘airfield’ where Ingenuity will attempt to fly. Once deployed, Ingenuity will have 30 Martian days (or sols, equivalent to 31 Earth days) to conduct test flights.

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“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,” Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA headquarters said in a statement.

Numerous challenges await, such as the Martian atmosphere which is one per cent as Earth’s at the surface. During Martian daytime, the planet’s surface receives about half the amount of solar energy that reaches Earth during its daytime, and night temperatures can plummet to -90oC, which can freeze and crack unprotected electrical components.

“Every step we have taken since this journey began six years ago has been uncharted territory in the history of aircraft,” said Bob Balaram, Mars Helicopter chief engineer at JPL. “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.”

Ingenuity will need to be situated in the middle of its airfield before it can embark on its maiden flight on Mars. Before that can happen, a six stage process will be initiated to deploy the helicopter on the planet surface from the rover.

“As with everything with the helicopter, this type of deployment has never been done before,” said Farah Alibay, Mars Helicopter integration lead for the Perseverance rover. “Once we start the deployment there is no turning back. All activities are closely coordinated, irreversible, and dependent on each other. If there is even a hint that something isn’t going as expected, we may decide to hold off for a sol or more until we have a better idea what is going on.”

A full rundown of the six steps to Ingenuity’s deployment can be found here.