It does not fly far, just to the height of a basketball rim and down, a short jump that should take about 40 seconds. But the autonomous flight of a small helicopter called Ingenuity, perhaps as early as Sunday, would mark a first in interplanetary travel, demonstrate new technology and pave the way for scientists and explorers to cross the surface of the red planet more quickly.
It is a technology demonstration that complements the main function of the mission – the Perseverance Rover, a four-wheeled vehicle designed to explore the landscape of a crater that once held water and could provide clues about the possibility of ancient life there.
The rover is equipped with all sorts of cameras and sensors that can zoom in on rock formations and collect data on the planet’s landscape and climate. “Reading the geological history embedded in its rocks will give scientists a richer sense of what the planet was like in its distant past,” NASA said.
Endurance brought with it ingenuity, a small offspring that clung to the rover’s carriage during the seven-month journey of 300 million kilometers, the white kneeling landed through Mars’ atmosphere and the cool Mars nights since.
Now it is ready for its first flight.
“It could be a great day,” Tim Canham, NASA’s Ingenuity Operations, told reporters Friday. “We are all nervous, but we have confidence that we are putting in the work and time and that we have the right people to do the job.”
Given the distance between Mars and Earth, NASA will not be notified of the mission’s success or failure until the wee hours of Monday morning.
Invention is a sprite of a helicopter, only four pounds, with four pointed legs, two rotor blades swirling at dazzling speed in opposite directions, a solar panel and a hull filled with aircraft electronics designed to help it navigate the thin Mars atmosphere – another wonder about getting out of the labs at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
It is not easy to fly a helicopter on Mars. The reduced gravity – about a third of the earth’s – helps it to take off and stay high. But the lack of Mars atmosphere, only 1 percent of Earth’s density, does not give the knives much to chew on as they try to get purchases for liftoff.
“That’s the equivalent of about 100,000 feet high on Earth or three times the height of Mount Everest,” said MiMi Aung, NASA’s project manager Ingenuity. “We don’t usually fly things that high.”
Commercial passenger planes fly about 35,000 feet above the ground, she noted, adding: “There were some people who doubted we could generate enough lift to fly in the thin Mars atmosphere.”
The dual blades can rotate incredibly fast, 2,400 rpm, and are designed to bring the drone-like ingenuity off the ground. “These knives are nothing off the shelf,” she said. “They are really fine-tuned to maximize the lift we can generate in such a thin atmosphere.”
If successful, Ingenuity’s flight would come nearly 120 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight over the beach in North Carolina. Ingenuity’s airfield is nothing like Kitty Hawk, a dusty, rocky, barren strip of earth that is flat enough, NASA hopes, for takeoff and landing.
Ingenuity is designed as a test vehicle “in the long tradition of experimental aircraft that started with the Wright brothers who were able to bring air mobility as a dimension for us to be able to travel here on Earth,” NASA’s Bob Balaram , chief engineer for the Mars helicopter project, said in a news briefing last month. “Similarly, we hope that ingenuity also allows us to expand and open up air mobility on Mars.”
In 1903, the Wright brothers’ first flight went about 120 feet. Ingenuity’s first flight does not go that far. Originally, it plans to lift off, rise to approx. 10 feet, soar for about 30 seconds and come down again.
If all goes according to plan, the helicopter can make as many as five flights, each one more ambitious than the last. The other, for example, flies a little higher to 16 feet and then horizontally for a little bit before returning to the landing site.
The perseverance rover will help with the flight of ingenuity and try to document it and forward signals back to earth.
Ingenuity is a side benefit of the mission, a technology demonstration that could pave the way for more planes on Mars in the future that “could provide a supporting role as robot scouts and survey terrain from above,” NASA said.
“It’s a high-risk approach that allows us to test capabilities that we can improve on later, which can also advance science on future missions,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division.