NASA is about to fly its Mars helicopter for the first time. The feat could revolutionize spaceflight.
The helicopter, called Ingenuity, traveled nearly 300 million miles to the red planet tucked inside the belly of the Perseverance rover. Now it’s sitting in an airfield in Mars’ Jezero Crater, where it’s set to take the first controlled powered flight ever conducted on another planet early on Wednesday.
You can watch NASA attempt this feat via a livestream from mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California (it’s embedded below).
The flight was originally scheduled for early Monday, but NASA delayed it after a crucial blade-spin test ended abruptly on Friday. For the test, Ingenuity was supposed to spin its carbon-fiber blades at full speed while on the ground. The two pairs of blades must spin in opposite directions at about 2,500 revolutions per minute — about eight times as fast as a passenger helicopter on Earth — in order to lift the 4-pound drone. That’s necessary because Martian air has just 1% the density of Earth’s atmosphere.
It’s not yet clear what caused the helicopter’s software to cut the test short, but Ingenuity will need to redo the full-speed spin before it can fly. If the redo goes well, Ingenuity will conduct its entire flight autonomously as early as Wednesday.
On flight day, the rapid rotor spinning should lift Ingenuity about 10 feet off the ground, hover there, then gently lower it back down. If all goes well, Ingenuity will attempt up to four more airborne escapades over the course of 30 days. Each of those flights would be increasingly difficult, with the drone venturing higher and farther each time.
Because it takes at least eight minutes for a signal from Mars to travel to Earth, and vice versa, the engineers and technicians who run Ingenuity can only bite their nails and wait for the signal that the helicopter has flown and landed on Wednesday.
“I’m sure we’re all going to be pretty on edge,” Josh Ravich, the mechanical lead for the Ingenuity team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Insider. “Definitely nervous. I mean, it’s after years and years of work, you know, kind of waiting for that little one moment to come back.”
Watch NASA fly its Mars helicopter live
Ingenuity is a technology demonstration meant to test NASA’s rotorcraft technology on another planet. So beyond flying and capturing photos and video from the air, it won’t conduct any science. But Ingenuity could pave the way for future extraterrestrial helicopters that would do reconnaissance for rovers and astronauts, study the surface of Mars or other planets from the air, and fly through canyons and cliffs that may be inaccessible to rovers.
The NASA TV livestream below will show the agency’s Space Flight Operations Facility throughout the flight attempt. That’s where engineers like Ravich will be waiting anxiously to hear from the helicopter.
“By its nature, it’s going to have a little bit more risk than a normal mission,” Ravich said. “There’s a lot of things that could go wrong.”
You won’t be able to watch the flight in real time — NASA can’t livestream from another planet — but video of and from the flight will likely become available soon afterward. The helicopter is set to record the ground below it using two cameras on its belly (one in black and white for navigation and one in color). Perseverance, meanwhile, is expected to record the flight from a nearby overlook.
It’s not yet known how long it will take to get that video back to Earth and for NASA to publish it. Perseverance beamed back complete video footage of its landing within three days.
This could be the first of 5 flights
If everything goes as NASA hopes, Ingenuity’s fifth and final flight will carry the helicopter over 980 feet (300 meters) of Martian ground.
“Each one of those is probably going to be, you know, a pretty tense and exciting experience,” Ravich said.
But even if Ingenuity only completes this first 10-foot hover, that will be a major achievement.
“It will be truly a Wright brothers moment but on another planet,” MiMi Aung, the project manager for the helicopter team, said in a briefing before the rover landed. “Every step going forward will be first of a kind.”
This post has been updated with new information. It was originally published on Friday, April 9, 2021.