take off

Mars helicopter Ingenuity: NASA sets a tentative date for first flight

“This is the first time it’s going to see the real thing.”

On February 18, NASA landed its fifth rover on Mars. But Perseverance didn’t venture to the Red Planet on its own — it had a little companion stowed away.

The Perseverance rover packed a flying machine, the Ingenuity helicopter, which will attempt to take off from the surface of Mars. If it succeeds, Ingenuity will be the first aircraft to conduct a controlled flight on another world.

When will the Mars Ingenuity helicopter fly?

What’s new— NASA is currently targeting April 8 for the first test flight of Perseverance, although that could change by a couple of days in either direction, J. (Bob) Balaram, Ingenuity’s chief engineer, says during a press conference on Tuesday.

On Sunday, Perseverance released the debris shield that has been protecting Ingenuity, giving the first look at Ingenuity safely tucked at the bottom of the rover’s belly.

Ingenuity is only 19 inches tall, with two four-foot-long carbon-fiber rotors spinning in opposite directions. This small size enables it to easily stow away.

On March 22, NASA’s Perseverance rover Twitter account released this first look at the Ingenuity helicopter on the surface of Mars.NASA/Twitter

Why did NASA send a helicopter to Mars?

Harvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot and flight control lead, recalls that the idea for sending a helicopter to Mars began with the question, “can we do this on Mars?”

“We did a lot of work with just pen and paper and computer simulations,” Grip tells Inverse. “But once we felt comfortable enough that we understood things, we built several prototypes.”

The team began with several failed test programs during the early days before finally building an Ingenuity flight model which was tested in a simulated space chamber. The team experimented with different maneuvers and mechanisms to make sure that the helicopter could fly on Mars.

The test chamber is a 25-foot simulator that mimics the Martian environment. It’s basically a large vacuum chamber where all the air is pumped out and then filled with just enough carbon dioxide to emulate the thin atmosphere on Mars.

How do you fly a helicopter on Mars?

Flying a helicopter on Mars is much different than flying one on Earth. Mars’ atmosphere is much thinner than Earth’s, about 1 percent of the air pressure. It also only has about 40 percent of Earth’s gravity.

This means the Ingenuity helicopter needed to be built for the particulars of the Martian environment. Ingenuity is packed with a much larger rotor, which has to be both stiff and light in order for the team to be able to control it on Mars.

“We discovered that if we don't take special measures, controlling it on Mars would be something like, if you can picture, riding a bicycle with grocery bags hanging from your handlebars,” Grip says. “You get this kind of sluggish oscillatory response when you try to steer.”

Ingenuity also carries a special accessory meant to honor the history of flight, a small piece of fabric that was part of the original aircraft flown by the Wright Brothers, the aviation pioneers behind the first successful airplane.

An illustration of the Ingenuity helicopter, designed to fly in Mars’ thin atmosphere.NASA

Because it’s only been tested in a simulated Martian environment, the team is not entirely sure the helicopter can take off from the Martian surface.

“We can’t fully replicate things,” Grip says. “We can replicate the Martian atmosphere but we can’t simultaneously replicate the gravity and we can’t replicate the visual environment around it.”

Included in the Ingenuity helicopter is a small piece of the Wright Flyer, which the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903, marking the first powered flight. NASA / JPL-Caltech

When is Ingenuity flying?

After landing on Mars, Perseverance has been on the hunt for the perfect first flight spot for Ingenuity — a process still ongoing, even as the flight date draws near.

Ingenuity is powered through solar panels that charge up its lithium-ion batteries for one 90-second flight per Martian day.

Once the helicopter is able to charge itself through its solar panel and communicate with the team through the Mars Helicopter Base Station on the rover, then they can begin testing the helicopter's flight abilities in early April.

Over the course of 30 Martian sols (a sol on Mars, its equivalent of a day, is about 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth), a team of NASA engineers on the ground will test out Ingenuity's ability to fly. But they're going to take things slow.

For its first flight, the helicopter will lift a few feet off the ground and hover in the air for around 20 to 30 seconds. Although brief, those first seconds of flight will be a major milestone in space exploration. Subsequent flights will attempt further distances and higher altitudes than the one before it. The helicopter could fly for up to 90 seconds, to distances of almost 980 feet at a time and about 10 to 15 feet above the ground.

What’s next — As a proof of concept, Ingenuity isn’t designed to last long, but will be a good test for future missions to places with substantial atmospheres like Venus or Saturn’s moon Titan, which has a thick atmosphere and a high potential for life.

“It won't be taking off in a vacuum chamber, but out in the open with dirt and rocks and winds buffering it and all of those things,” Grip says. “As much as we tried to make sure that it's all going to work here, this is the first time it’s going to see the real thing.”