NASA's Ingenuity helicopter is getting ready to fly. Having hitched a ride to Mars on the rover Perseverance, its protective casing has now been removed and it's being carried to its “airfield” to get ready for its historic first flight. The current take-off day is expected to be around April 8, although this could change.
Ingenuity is a technology demonstration project. If successful, it will become the first propelled vehicle to take flight on another world; an important step that could open up a new way to explore the planets and moons of the Solar System, guiding astronauts and rovers.
“Every step we have taken since this journey began six years ago has been uncharted territory in the history of aircraft,” Bob Balaram, Mars helicopter chief engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. “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.”
Flying a vehicle on Mars is much more difficult than on Earth. The Red Planet has an advantage in that it has about one-third of the gravity we experience here so it will be easier to lift up, but its atmospheric density is just 1 percent of what’s found on Earth, so it may be harder to stay up. It is also extremely cold there compared to our planet. This meant Ingenuity had to be small and light, with strong propellers, and have enough power to keep itself warm.
Given that it is a low-cost mission, the team was able to use off-the-shelf components for the internal computer, which allowed them to give it a small but very powerful brain. These tech components are usually avoided because they are not designed for space, but the opportunity to have Ingenuity capable of doing more was worth the risk.
In a press conference, the team confirmed that Ingenuity’s computer is 150 times faster than what’s used on Perseverance. In fact, it outsmarts all the computers that NASA ever sent into space on all missions by a factor of 100. This big silicon brain will allow the helicopter to do all sorts of cool things when it takes flight.
“When NASA’s Sojourner rover landed on Mars in 1997, it proved that roving the Red Planet was possible and completely redefined our approach to how we explore Mars. Similarly, we want to learn about the potential Ingenuity has for the future of science research,” said Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters. “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.”
It will take 6 Martian days (or sols) for Ingenuity to be deployed from Perseverance’s belly until it is standing on its own four feet, using its solar panels to get charged up, and then be ready to fly. In its first flight, it is expected to hover 3 meters (10 feet) above the ground for 30 seconds. If this is a success, the team is planning four more flights over the course of 30 sols.
“Mars is hard,” explained MiMi Aung, project manager for Ingenuity at JPL. “Our plan is to work whatever the Red Planet throws at us the very same way we handled every challenge we’ve faced over the past six years – together, with tenacity and a lot of hard work, and a little Ingenuity.”
Like Perseverance, Ingenuity has brought something special on its journey as a way to mark its historic first propelled flight on another planet. A small amount of material from the aircraft flown by the Wright brothers, who made the first powered flight on Earth in 1903, was placed under the helicopter’s solar panel.