Humanity’s first-ever attempt at flight on another world is about to take place, as NASA gears up for the inaugural test of its “Ingenuity” Mars helicopter this week.
Weighing in at less than two kilograms, Ingenuity is a small drone that was carried to the surface of Mars by NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed in Jezero Crater in February.
Having been deployed from the belly of the rover over the last few weeks, Ingenuity is now sitting out alone on the surface of Mars, with Perseverance watching from a safe distance.
Originally, the plan was to attempt the first flight yesterday, Sunday, April 10. However, a small anomaly with the helicopter meant the test has been delayed to no earlier than this Wednesday, April 14.
In a statement, NASA said an issue had arisen during a test of the vehicle’s two rotor blades, with a timer expiring as the helicopter switched from “pre-flight” to “flight” mode as the blades attempted to reach flight speeds of 2,400 revolutions per minute.
And while there no immediate cause for concern, engineers still wanted to wait and check to make sure everything was okay before attempting flight.
“The helicopter is safe and healthy and communicated its full telemetry set to Earth,” NASA said. “The helicopter team is reviewing telemetry to diagnose and understand the issue.”
When that first flight does happen, hopefully on Wednesday, it is expected to be relatively modest. The helicopter will perform a short hover, before dropping back safely to the ground.
You’ll be able to watch the action on NASA TV. A time for the test has not yet been announced.
Yet this will be a monumental achievement in itself. No vehicle has ever flown in the air of another world before, making Ingenuity’s first flight a historic moment.
To symbolize the accomplishment, Ingenuity even has as a small piece of material from the Wright Flyer, the first vehicle to perform powered flight on Earth back in 1903.
More than 100 years later, we’re now hoping to achieve the same feat on another planet entirely – this time with a small solar-powered vehicle, carried to the surface by something plucked out of science fiction.
If Ingenuity’s first flight is successful, the team will attempt more daring flights in the coming weeks.
Each flight will be autonomous, lasting up to 90 seconds. And while beginning low, later flights could reach heights and distances of perhaps hundreds of meters.
Ingenuity even has a camera on board, so it will be able to return stunning images of Mars taken from the air.
Simultaneously, the Perseverance rover will use its cameras to capture Ingenuity as it flies through the Martian skies, both in images and videos.
At most, only one flight per day is possible, as Ingenuity needs time to recharge its battery with its solar panels. And the gap between flights will likely be longer as the team looks through the data and decides what to do on subsequent flights.
But whatever comes first, 30 days or five flights, Ingenuity will hopefully have been able to do something few thought possible – fly on another planet.
This same technology might one day support future human missions, with Ingenuity-like drones performing reconnaissance to scout out areas of interest on the surface.
That might be some way off. But the first demonstration of these capabilities with Ingenuity is very much real – and, if all goes well, it’ll all start this week.