After weeks of waiting, NASA has set a date of Sunday for the first helicopter on another world to take flight and search for alien life on Mars.
The helicopter Ingenuity unfurled from under Perseverance rover last week, and now NASA is ready to see the chopper lift off — if they manage it, then it will mark the first human-controlled flight to take place on another planet.
Perseverance rover landed on Mars in February. Since it touched down, the Mars rover has started to explore its new home in Jezero Crater, an ancient lakebed where the conditions may once have been right for life to flourish during the narrow window in which the Red Planet was a lush and watery world billions of years ago. Perseverance rover is the headline act, but Ingenuity’s helicopter flight is the breakout support act we can’t afford to miss.
Here’s everything you need to know about Ingenuity’s mission on Mars and how to watch on Sunday as the helicopter takes flight above the Red Planet’s dusty surface in search of signs of alien life.
When will the Mars Ingenuity helicopter fly?
The first flight of Ingenuity is expected to take place at 3:30 a.m. ET on Monday, April 19, with a press conference to follow at 6:15 a.m. This comes after a few delays postponed the helicopter’s first flight. NASA-TV will air the live stream.
Update: This section has been updated to reflect a delay in the flight time.
Given the sheer difficulty of pulling off a flight on another planet, conditions need to be just right for the craft to fly. It has a paired-down payload to make its job a little easier. Unlike the rover’s science cargo, the helicopter only carries a camera and some onboard navigation equipment. This gets at Ingenuity’s core mission: It is primarily a technology demonstration to prove that powered flight can work on other worlds.
In a nod to the history that brought us to this point, the Mars helicopter carries a small scrap of fabric from the Wright Brothers’ 1903 Flyer aboard. In other words, a piece of the first powered flight on Earth will fly again during the first powered flight on another planet, more than a century later.
READ MORE PERSEVERANCE ROVER NEWS FROM INVERSE
How long will Ingenuity fly on Mars?
Ingenuity’s first flight on Mars will likely last a mere 20-30 seconds, according to NASA. The craft is expected to lift just a few feet off the ground. Essentially, NASA’s loftier ambitions rest on carrying out these first flights successfully. After it takes off the first time, the Ingenuity team will fly again and again for the proceeding 30 days, and make increasingly ambitious journeys through the Martian sky.
“After that, the team will attempt additional experimental flights of incrementally farther distance and greater altitude,” the agency said in a press statement.
“After the helicopter completes its technology demonstration, Perseverance will continue its scientific mission.”
Mars’ atmosphere has about 1 percent the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere. This means there’s no guarantee Ingenuity will manage its first flight — let alone any subsequent flights. In fact, NASA celebrated the solar-powered helicopter managing to survive a full night on Mars.
How to watch the Mars helicopter Ingenuity fly:
Unfortunately for Ingenuity fans, there will be no live video to watch of the flight as it happens, but there may be a recording available in the subsequent days and weeks, thanks to Perseverance’s unique capabilities.
Perseverance has the ability to take video — the first Mars rover to have this skill. But the rover can only transmit 2 megabits per second back to Earth. At that speed, it means there won’t be a live stream available from the surface of Mars of Ingenuity’s first flight. The rover itself runs on 110 watts, so faster transfers are too power-intensive to carry out without endangering the rover.
"You can follow along with us after we downlink the telemetry and later on some images, but that won't be live,” he says in the video interview.
Tzanetos also reveals that the rover will take images of the helicopter, which means we will be able to see the flight (and, hopefully, later flights) from multiple perspectives.
Images from the rover are available on NASA’s website, and any available video of the first flight will eventually be uploaded there, too.
What happens after the Mars helicopter Ingenuity flight?
After the 30 days of test flights, the Perseverance rover will continue on its mission in Jezero Crater, searching for signs of past life on Mars. The NASA press conference on Monday will likely offer more details, too. That will mark the end of the Ingenuity part of the mission.
The Ingenuity team will be able to use data taken from the mission to inform future flights — whether on Mars, the upper layers of the atmosphere Venus, or Saturn’s moon Titan, which has lakes and streams of liquid hydrocarbons ribboning across its surface. NASA wants to send a drone there in 2027.