Right now, 170 million miles away, on the windy surface of Mars, a four-pound helicopter set on four spindly legs waits to take off. Within the next week or so, NASA will announce if that Mars helicopter (aka Ingenuity) can take its first powered, controlled flight.
The plan is for Ingenuity to take off, hover a few feet in the air for about 20 to 30 seconds, then land. To compare, the Wright brothers’ first flight over Kitty Hawk, North Carolina was 12 seconds.
Of course, the conditions on Mars are very different from North Carolina. The gravity on Mars is one-third of Earth’s and the atmosphere on Mars is very thin—about 1 percent as dense as our atmosphere. Because of this, Ingenuity’s rotor blades need to be much larger and spin much faster. And, because it’s so far away, it needs to fly by itself, with no real-time input from Earth.
Ingenuity’s flight is a technology demonstration, a proof of concept that carries no science instruments. NASA—along with many of us—just wants to see if it can fly. Just the fact Ingenuity is millions of miles away, sitting upright on Mars, is impressive. The “little helicopter that might” has already passed some huge milestones.
First, it survived the launch from Cape Canaveral on July 30, 2020, attached to the belly of the Perseverance rover. Then, it made it through a seven-month journey through space before a “sky crane” landing in the Jezero crater of Mars. Finally, it was unfolded and unlocked from the belly of Perseverance in a six-day process that involved bolt breaking, cable cutting, and finally, a five-inch drop to the surface. Since then, Perseverance has driven away and Ingenuity has survived Martian nighttime temperatures that can drop to minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit. During the days, it’s using its own solar panel to charge.
If the first test is successful, NASA plans up to five more flights over 30 Martian (or 31 Earth) days.
Ingenuity has something from Earth that connects it to its place in history. Taped to a cable underneath the helicopter’s solar panel, is a small piece of muslin material that originally covered the wings of the Wright brothers’ aircraft.
How to Watch Ingenuity ‘Take Flight’ on Mars
NASA will be hosting a livestream on NASA Television and NASA.gov on 3:30 a.m. EDT Monday, April 12 to confirm Ingenuity’s first flight. In addition, you can follow the event on the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory YouTube and Facebook channels.
There are times when space exploration means small steps for man and giant leaps for humankind, and there are others times when it’s short flights for little helicopters on other planets. We’ll know if Ingenuity makes its own history soon.