NASA's Mars helicopter to make 1st flight on another planet

Joanna Estrada
April 19, 2021

Nasa will make it's first ever attempt to fly a helicopter on Mars later today.

The drone, called Ingenuity, was airborne for less than a minute, but Nasa is celebrating what represents the first powered, controlled flight by an aircraft on another world.

The helicopter, called Ingenuity, traveled almost 300 million miles to the red planet tucked inside the belly of the Perseverance rover.

The helicopter rose for about six seconds, hovered and rotated for about 30 seconds, then descended again.

Nasa itself is likening the experiment to the Wright Brothers' feat 117 years ago, paying tribute to that modest but monumental first flight by having affixed a tiny swath of wing fabric from the original Wright flyer under Ingenuity's solar panel. The current timing for the flight - which could certainly change - is set for 3:30 a.m. ET in the wee hours of Monday morning. The agency expects to receive data from the helicopter around 6:15 a.m. ET.

If this flight works, four more flights will take place.

The aim of the the next four flights is to fly the helicopter a little further each time.

For the photography to work the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity will need to be perfectly synced in time!

"The moment our team has been waiting for is nearly here", Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung said at a recent briefing at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles.

To make the brief flight, Ingenuity's technology had to overcome Mars's super-thin atmosphere - just 1 percent the density of Earth's - which makes it more hard for the helicopters' blades, spinning at about 2,500 revolutions per minute, to gain the purchase they need to pull the vehicle into the air.

You can see what happened to the helicopter as NASA learns it via a livestream from mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California (embedded below).

PHOTO: NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter successfully completed a high-speed spin-up test, captured by the Mastcam-Z instrument on Perseverance, April 16, 2021. But Ingenuity could pave the way for future extraterrestrial helicopters that would do reconnaissance for rovers and astronauts, study the surface of Mars or other planets from the air, and fly through canyons and cliffs that may be inaccessible to rovers. Nasa said that issue has since been resolved. An unexpectedly strong wind gust is one potential peril that could spoil the flight. The atmosphere is very thin, just 1% of the density here at Earth. Ingenuity was therefore made extremely light and given the power to turn those blades extremely fast - at over 2,500 revolutions per minute.

But the spin-test ended when the helicopter failed to transition its flight computer from "pre-flight" to "flight" mode. Ingenuity re-did its full-speed spin test on Friday, and the blades performed as they should during flight. "The Perseverance rover will provide support during flight operations, taking images, collecting environmental data, and hosting the base station that enables the helicopter to communicate with mission controllers on Earth".

If everything goes as NASA hopes, Ingenuity's fifth and final flight will carry the helicopter over 980 feet (300 meters) of Martian ground.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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