NASA’s miniature helicopter is safely deployed on Mars, laying the groundwork for a potential first flight to the Red Planet.
The four-kilogram helicopter, called ingenuity, traveled a long way from Earth tucked under the Perseverance rover, which touched in February. On Saturday, NASA confirmed that ingenuity had safely detached itself from the belly of the rover and survived a four-inch fall to the surface of Mars.
The successful deployment brings NASA one step closer to its first attempt to test the possibility of guided flight powered by another planet – which could one day allow scientists to observe and explore parts of Mars’ surface that rovers cannot reach.
NASA compared Ingenuity’s experimental mission to the Wright Brothers ’historic first flight in 1903, which began the air age on Earth.
Ingenuity could take off as early as April 11, beginning a series of up to five test flights over Crater Lake, where the Perseverance landed, over the course of a month.
For now, the project is purely experimental, focusing on demonstrating new technology rather than helping the Perseverance mission, which is currently wandering Mars for traces of ancient life and collecting samples from the planet’s surface.
The first flight of the helicopter will be short: ingenuity will rise to about 10 meters from the ground, hover in the air for less than a minute, and then land. But NASA says a short trip would be a major turning point.
“In extraterrestrial conditions with almost no atmosphere, a flight to another world is invented,” NASA said in its trailer for the mission. “If this 30-day experiment succeeds, it could pave the way for future aviation researchers.”
NASA / JPL-Caltech
Surviving a journey of 293 million miles to Mars and safely leaving Perseverance were the first in a series of milestones the helicopter had to cross before its inaugural flight. Further, ingenuity will have to be kept warm and functional through extremely cold nights on Mars, which can see temperatures down to minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
The helicopter previously relied on the rover’s power system, but now the ingenuity will have to depend on internal heaters and charge its batteries using a solar panel.
There are still technical obstacles to ingenuity, such as taking off in the thin atmosphere of Mars.
Although the Red Planet has about one third of the Earth’s gravity, its surface atmosphere is only 1% dense. This means that without a lot of pushing air it is harder to create a lift.
After receiving commands from Earth transmitted through the Perseverance rover, the helicopter will also need to perform each test flight without entering control in the mission in real time.
But if Ingenuity’s experiments prove successful, the technology could support future robotic and even human missions to Mars, providing new aerial vistas, capturing high-definition images, or transferring small cargo from one place to another.