NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter is scheduled to attempt the first-ever powered flight on another world on Monday at 3:30 a.m. ET. The twin-blade rotorcraft will attempt to soar 10 feet above the ground and hover in place for 30 seconds, while cameras on NASA’s Perseverance rover capture the historic attempt from a distance.
The four-pound Ingenuity helicopter landed on Feb. 18, attached to the underbelly of Perseverance, NASA’s latest Mars rover whose main mission is to look for signs of ancient Mars life. Persistence has set aside time to witness Ingenuity’s escape attempt and report the results back to Earth. Ingenuity’s Monday flight test is the first of five scheduled within a 31-day period that started last week. If all goes well, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California will make plans for the next four, which will allow the craft to fly higher and travel farther, depending on the results of the first attempt.
JPL engineers have sought to raise expectations for the test flight at recent press conferences: “This is really difficult,” said Elsa Jensen, an operations leader for one of the Perseverance cameras to be captured on Ingenuity. The tests went well over the past week, Jansen added. “But we know there will be surprises.”
How to watch
Due to the long data delay between Mars and Earth, we won’t be seeing live video of the flight attempt – it will likely take a few days to get those images. Instead, NASA’s live streams will show engineers gradually analyzing data from Mars to confirm whether Ingenuity survived its attempt. Was it flying as expected, or was it swept away by a gust of wind? Did an alien steal it? We’ll find out as soon as engineers find out.
Tune in early on Monday to see how the historic flight unfolds.
What happens now
Ingenuity’s power supply is exhausted on landing, so it has to send the data to Perseverance in the most efficient way. That landing data dump features a pair of low-resolution black and white images captured by the downward-facing navigation camera under its body the size of a tissue box.
Sometime on Monday, engineers will get other images captured by two cameras on Perseverance – Navcam and Mastcam-Z – at much higher resolution.
Ingenuity’s images, along with a wealth of summary data, send radio signals to a so-called Mars base station on Perseverance’s body, which relays those signals to a satellite orbiting Mars, which then shoots the data through NASA’s Deep Space Network . all the way back to Earth. Ingenuity goes to sleep and charges the batteries for the rest of the day using the tiny solar panel the size of a cutting board above the small rotor wings.
On the next Mars day, or sol, engineers will wake Ingenuity again and retrieve the first 13-megapixel color photos taken with its other horizon-facing camera. More flight data will be sent the next day – “that’s kind of the price of this project,” said Tim Canham, head of Ingenuity’s operations.
“This is definitely a high-risk, high-return experiment,” MiMi Aung, Project Manager Ingenuity at NASA JPL, said at a news conference Friday. Based on several hours of testing, simulations and weather analysis on Mars, Aung said the engineering team’s confidence is high.
Ingenuity’s 1.2 meter long carbon fiber blades were successfully unlocked last week after planting its feet on the surface, and engineers were able to run a short spin test at 50 rpm. For the craft’s actual flight, those blades will spin as fast as 2,400 rpm – fast enough to gain lift in Mars’ ultra-thin atmosphere.
How Ingenuity fares during its first flight test will determine the parameters of its upcoming flight tests. Aung said the “life of the helicopter will be determined by how well it lands,” suggesting engineers might be able to complete more flight tests in 31 days if things are successful. After that period, Ingenuity will likely retire.