Science

Nasa gets ready to fly helicopter on Mars for first time

Ingenuity is expected to take to the Martian skies in the coming days – with Wednesday being the earliest time for take-off.

A tiny helicopter built by Nasa is ready to fly on Mars as part of the US space agency’s first attempt at a powered, controlled flight on another world.

The Ingenuity helicopter is expected to take to the Martian skies in the coming days – with Wednesday being the earliest time for take-off.

The small helicopter is part of a technology demonstration – a project that aims to test a new capability for the first time.

Take-off had been scheduled for Monday, but Nasa has said this was delayed to Wednesday at the earliest following a technical issue during a rotor test, which means another test is now needed prior to the launch.

In a statement, Nasa said: “During a high-speed spin test of the rotors on Friday, the command sequence controlling the test ended early due to a ‘watchdog’ timer expiration.

“This occurred as it was trying to transition the flight computer from ‘Pre-Flight’ to ‘Flight’ mode. The helicopter is safe and healthy and communicated its full telemetry set to Earth.

“The watchdog timer oversees the command sequence and alerts the system to any potential issues. It helps the system stay safe by not proceeding if an issue is observed and worked as planned.”

Ingenuity arrived at the Jezero Crater on February 18 after an eight-month journey spanning nearly 300 million miles, tucked inside the belly of Nasa’s Perseverance rover.

After the spacecraft landed, it dropped the drone onto the ground so Ingenuity could prepare for its maiden flight.

Nasa's Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter
The Perseverance rover taking a selfie with Ingenuity on the Martian surface (Nasa/JPL-Caltech)

About 50cm tall, the helicopter weighs 1.8kg on Earth, but is a mere 0.68kg on Mars because of the red planet’s lower gravity.

It is armed with two rotors that spin in opposite directions to lift the drone off the ground.

Ingenuity also faces the challenge of flying in the Martian atmosphere, which is about 100 times thinner than Earth’s.

As it is a technology demonstration, the helicopter does not have any scientific instruments onboard.

According to Nasa, one of Ingenuity’s key objectives is to survive the “bone-chilling temperatures” of the red planet, with “nights as cold as minus 90C”.

Ingenuity
PA Graphics

MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said: “The Ingenuity team has done everything to test the helicopter on Earth, and we are looking forward to flying our experiment in the real environment at Mars.

“We’ll be learning all along the way, and it will be the ultimate reward for our team to be able to add another dimension to the way we explore other worlds in the future.”

For its first flight, the helicopter will take off from the ground and hover in the air at around 10 feet (three metres) for about 20 to 30 seconds before descending and touching back down on the Martian surface.

If successful, Nasa says it will be a “major milestone” – the very first powered flight in another world.

After that, the aircraft will attempt additional experimental flights which will involve travelling further distances and increasing altitudes.

Ingenuity will aim for up to five test flights within a 30 Martian-day (31 Earth-day) demonstration window.

It is designed to be mostly autonomous so Nasa will not be able to control the helicopter remotely.

This is because of the distance between Earth and Mars – it takes more than 11 minutes to get a radio signal back to Earth

Nasa said it will not be able to look at engineering data or images from each flight until well after the flight takes place.

Bob Balaram, Mars Helicopter chief engineer at JPL, said: “Every step we have taken since this journey began six years ago has been uncharted territory in the history of aircraft.

“And while getting deployed to the surface will be a big challenge, surviving that first night on Mars alone, without the rover protecting it and keeping it powered, will be an even bigger one.”

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