Today is the day. NASA’s Ingenuity, the Mars helicopter, will attempt to take its first flight on the Red Planet. If successful, this will be the first propelled flight performed by a human-powered vehicle on another world in the Solar System.
This first flight is expected to last for about 30 seconds. The rotor blades will spin at 2,537 rotations per minute (rpm) and after the helicopter has checked that everything’s good, it will then lift off. It takes about 3 seconds to reach its operational altitude of 3 meters (10 feet). It will then hover in place before coming back down softly.
All of this will be done automatically and we won’t have the data, images, and videos until a few hours after the actual flight. The flight is expected in the early hours of the morning in the US (12:30 am PDT/3:30 am EDT/8:30 am BST), with a live conference to announce how it went three hours later.
“The first flight will be a 30-second spin-up, hovering a couple of meters above the ground, touch back down. We then get a nice pretty plot and a picture to confirm that it was executed well, and then everyone jumps out of their seat and they're super excited,” Taryn Baily, a mechanical engineer on the Ingenuity mission team, told IFLScience when asked what we can hope to get from this first flight.
Over the last couple of weeks, the helicopter has undergone several tests including having its rotor blades spin gently to check their mobility, and then push the rpm up. Then it hit a snag the day of the original launch April 11, when a "watchdog" feature sent a timer expiration command as the onboard computer was supposed to go from Pre-Flight mode to the Flight version. Once the team identified the issue and let the software update, they let Ingenuity solar charge up in preparation for today’s historic flight attempt.
The Ingenuity mission is a technology demonstration to see if it works before potentially developing more technically advanced vehicles that could one day scout ahead for astronauts or explore hard-to-reach places on other planets. Propelled flight has never been attempted before on another planet, so there were many challenges to overcome when it came to building a vehicle that could have the chance to fly on Mars, not least factoring in its thin atmosphere and weaker gravity.
“I came on the project in 2017. At that point they had a design so I was mainly involved supporting the testing for our engineering models, which is what we use first to pretty much validate our design before we got into building our flight model,” Baily explained to IFLScience.
Ingenuity was tested in a simulated Mars environment on Earth. Engineers used a special chamber where the temperature and pressure can be adjusted to the very cold and low-pressure environment of Mars. They also had to come up with ways to compensate for the difference in gravity between here and there, as Mars’s gravity is 62 percent lower.
“Because the helicopter is going to be the first powered flight vehicle on another planet a lot of the testing that went along with it was also kind of a first. And we had to just kind of think of things that would that made the most sense,” Baily told IFLScience. “It was definitely a fun learning experience.”
Every step in this Mars mission so far has been incredibly successful and littered with firsts, so we hope that continues today as Ingenuity attempts this historic first flight into the Martian air.
You can watch the livestream of NASA's press conference here.