NASA's Mars Helicopter Is on the Red Planet's Surface and Preparing to Fly

The Ingenuity helicopter, which carries a piece of the first plane to fly on Earth, is preparing for the first powered flight on an alien world.
April 5, 2021, 6:15pm
​Ingenuity on Mars. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Ingenuity on Mars. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Since it arrived on Mars in February, NASA’s Perseverance rover has been spending its time taking short drives, zapping rocks with lasers, and recording the first ever audio of the red planet. 

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But on Saturday, the rover completed a particularly exciting task: dropping off its tiny helicopter buddy, Ingenuity, onto the Martian surface at Jezero Crater. A four-pound autonomous aircraft that rode to Mars on the belly of Perseverance, Ingenuity is due to take to the air as early as this Sunday. If it is successful, it will become the first vehicle to conduct a powered flight on an extraterrestrial world.

The helicopter’s first test after it was lowered to the Martian surface over the weekend was simply surviving the extremely punishing night on the red planet, without the protection of the rover’s power and heat. With nocturnal temperatures that can reach -130°F (-90°C ), it was a tense moment for the Ingenuity team, but NASA announced that the helicopter had survived the night on Monday.  

Ingenuity will now spend several days testing out its heat system, solar power arrays, lithium batteries, and rotor blades, in preparation for its first flight. Perseverance is also set to drive out of the designated airfield to give that Ingenuity room for its flights and to avoid blocking sunlight for its solar panels. 

The mission team plans to start slow by ascending about 10 feet into the air, hovering for half a minute, and then returning to the Martian surface. If that goes well, the helicopter will attempt more ambitious aerial journeys that may reach altitudes of five meters and cover round-trip distances of about 90 meters at a maximum speed of about 35 kilometers per hour. 

Flying on Mars is no easy feat. Martian winds and weather are unpredictable, presenting a wild card for navigating these powered flights. The Martian atmosphere is also about 100 times thinner than the atmosphere on Earth, which means the copter blades don’t have a lot of pressure to work with to generate vertical lift. For this reason, Ingenuity is both lightweight and has extended four-foot-long rotor blades to get the most out of its alien airfield. 

NASA plans to fly Ingenuity up to five times over the next month as part of its technical demonstration of extraterrestrial helicopter technology. The mission will then be retired so that the Perseverance team can focus on its prime mission: the rover’s journey across Jezero Crater. Perseverance is tasked with many important exploration goals, including collecting and eventually caching samples of this ancient Martian lakebed so that a future mission can pick them up and return them to Earth.

Though Ingenuity’s mission is short-lived, it will have long-term impacts for spaceflight. Successful powered flights on Mars could open up the possibility of sending aerial vehicles to other solar system destinations, such as Saturn’s moon Titan. 

To symbolize its trailblazing role, Ingenuity carries a small piece of fabric from the Wright Flyer, the aircraft that the Wright Brothers used to demonstrate the first powered flight on Earth in 1903 near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Just as the Flyer pioneered a new form of travel on our own planet, Ingenuity is now on the cusp of ushering in an amazing era of extraterrestrial aviation.