Nasa on Monday will attempt to fly a miniature helicopter above the surface of Mars in what would be the first powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet.
If all goes to plan, the 1.8kg helicopter will slowly ascend to an altitude of three metres above the Martian surface, hover for 30 seconds, then rotate before descending to a gentle landing on all four legs. The flight is due to take place at 3.30am US eastern daylight time (8.30am BST/7.30am GMT). But data confirming the outcome is not expected to reach Nasa until about three hourse later.
The test flight will take place 173 million miles from Earth, on the floor of a vast Martian basin called Jezero Crater. Success hinges on Ingenuity executing its pre-programmed flight instructions autonomously.
“The moment our team has been waiting for is almost here,” said the Ingenuity project manager, MiMi Aung. Nasa is likening the experiment to the Wright Brothers’ feat 117 years ago – a tiny swath of wing fabric from the original Wright flyer is affixed under Ingenuity’s solar panel.
The robot rotorcraft was carried to the red planet in the belly of Nasa’s Mars rover Perseverance, which touched down on 18 February in Jezero Crater after a nearly seven-month journey through space.
Nasa hopes to receive images and video of the flight from cameras mounted on the helicopter and on the Perseverance rover, which will be parked 76 metres away.
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. Prospects for future flights rest largely on a safe, four-point touchdown the first time.
“It doesn’t have a self-righting system, so if we do have a bad landing, that will be the end of the mission,” Aung said. An unexpectedly strong wind gust is one potential peril that could spoil the flight.
Nasa hopes Ingenuity – a technology demonstration separate from Perseverance’s primary mission to search for traces of ancient microorganisms – paves the way for aerial surveillance of Mars and other destinations in the solar system, such as Venus or Saturn’s moon Titan.
While Mars possesses much less gravity than Earth, its atmosphere is just 1% as dense, presenting a special challenge for flight. Engineers equipped Ingenuity with rotor blades that are four feet long and spin more rapidly than would be needed on Earth for an aircraft of its size. The design was successfully tested in vacuum chambers built at JPL to simulate Martian conditions, but it remains to be seen whether Ingenuity will fly on the red planet.
The small, lightweight aircraft already passed an early crucial test by demonstrating it could withstand nighttime temperatures dropping as low as -90C, using solar power alone to recharge and keep internal components properly heated.
The planned flight was delayed for a week by a technical glitch during a test spin of the aircraft’s rotors on 9 April. Nasa said that issue has since been resolved.