NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter is slated to attempt the first-ever powered flight on another world at 3:30AM ET on Monday. The twin-blade rotorcraft will try to ascend 10 feet above ground and hover in place for 30 seconds while cameras on NASA’s Perseverance rover record the historic attempt from a distance.
The four-pound Ingenuity copter landed on Mars February 18th attached to the underbelly of Perseverance, NASA’s latest Mars rover whose main mission is to search for signs of ancient Martian life. Perseverance has set aside time to witness Ingenuity’s flight attempt and report the results back to Earth. Ingenuity’s Monday flight test is the first of five planned within a 31-day window that kicked off last week. If all goes well, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California will start planning for the next four, which could see the craft soar higher and travel farther, depending the results of its first attempt.
JPL engineers have sought to set expectations for the test flight during recent press conferences: “This is really hard,” said Elsa Jensen, an operations lead for one of the cameras aboard Perseverance that’ll be fixed on Ingenuity. Tests have gone well over the last week, Jansen added. “But we know there’ll be surprises.”
How to watch
Because of the long data delay between Mars and Earth, we won’t see live video of the flight attempt — it will probably take a few days to get that footage. Instead, NASA’s livestreams will show engineers gradually analyzing data from Mars that will confirm whether or not Ingenuity survived its attempt. Did it fly as expected, or did it get swept away by a gust of wind? Did an alien steal it? We’ll know as soon as engineers find out.
Tune in early on Monday to see how the historic flight goes.
What Happens Next
Ingenuity’s power supply will be exhausted upon landing, so it needs to beam data to Perseverance in the most efficient way possible. That landing data dump will include a few low-resolution black-and-white images captured by its down-facing navigation camera under its tissue box-sized body.
Sometime Monday, engineers will get other images captured by two cameras on Perseverance — Navcam and Mastcam-Z — with much higher resolution.
The images from Ingenuity, along with troves of summary data, will radio signals to a so-called Mars Base Station situated on Perseverance’s body, which will relay those signals to a satellite orbiting Mars, which will then shoot the data through NASA’s Deep Space Network all the way back to Earth. Ingenuity will go into sleep mode and re-charge its batteries for the rest of the day using the small cutting board-sized solar panel above its little rotor wings.
On the next Mars day, or sol, engineers will wake Ingenuity back up and retrieve the first 13-megapixel color images taken by its other, horizon-facing camera. More flight data will be sent throughout the following day — “that’s kind of the prize of this project,” Tim Canham, Ingenuity’s operations lead, said.
“This is definitely a high-risk, high-reward experiment,” MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at NASA JPL, said Friday during a press conference. Based on several hours of tests, simulations and Martian weather analyses, Aung said “confidence is high” among the engineering team.
Ingenuity’s four-foot-long carbon fiber blades successfully unlocked last week after it planted its feet on the surface, and engineers were able to conduct a brief spin test at 50 rpm. For the craft’s actual flight, those blades will be spinning as quickly as 2,400 rpm — fast enough to achieve lift in Mars’ ultra-thin atmosphere.
How Ingenuity does on its first flight test will determine the parameters of its upcoming flight tests. Aung said the helicopter’s “lifetime will be determined by how well it lands,” suggesting engineers could be able to carry out more flight tests within the 31-day window if things are successful. After that window, however, it’s likely Ingenuity will retire.
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