UPDATE: The first Martian flight for NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has been pushed back to no earlier than April 14.
ORIGINAL STORY BELOW
As soon as this weekend, a 4-pound helicopter could perform the first controlled flight on another world as NASA teams prepare for Ingenuity’s biggest milestone on its Mars mission.
The small helicopter successfully unfurled from the belly of NASA’s Mars rover, Perseverance, and was able to survive, creating its own power from the sun. Now, NASA says it’s targeting Sunday, April 11 around 8 p.m. for its first flight attempt.
It’s possible the first blade-spin could shift as Ingenuity’s teams check the weather and perform some preflight checks, according to NASA.
Ingenuity is a technology demonstration mission to determine if small helicopters could be used on future Mars missions or to other worlds. Every milestone completed for the $80 million-mission is an achievement for the team behind the innovative chopper.
First, it needed to survive the journey to Mars, then successfully deploy from the underbelly of the Perseverance rover, surviving a Martian cold night on its own is the latest success for Ingenuity. However, it has more boxes to check before it flies on Mars.
Next teams will monitor Ingenuity’s power consumptions, battery levels and solar energy in the coming days. Closer to flight, Ingenuity’s rotor blades will be unlocked and then go for a spin all while the helicopter remains grounded. Following another spin check at full speed at 2400 RPMs, Ingenuity will then attempt its first liftoff in the thin Martian atmosphere.
The flight is all autonomous using a special software and if it crash lands there will not be another chance.
“We basically give it a set of instructions and the helicopter takes off and flies to the places we tell it to,” said Timothy Canham, Mars Helicopter operations. “And we had an extensive test program here on Earth where we did many flights in a special chamber at JPL to prove that our software would work when we got to Mars.”
During a March 23 update, Ingenuity chief engineer Bob Balaram described the challenges of flying on Mars.
“The biggest challenge will be that we are flying in the atmosphere of Mars, which has its own dynamics, its own winds, wind gusts and so forth and these are things which we tested with wind tunnels in a chamber. We have some confidence that everything will be good, but there’s nothing like actually being in the real environment of Mars,” Balaram said.
Asked if the Perseverance rover could help correct Ingenuity if it does not land on its legs upright, Balaram said the damage to the blades would likely make it unflyable at that point.
“Of course, it’s all been designed so that it doesn’t do that so we don’t have that expectation, unless it’s a really bad day during the test flight program,” Balaram said.
If the demonstration mission is a success, Ingenuity will climb at a rate of 3 feet per second then hover at 10 feet in the air for up to 30 seconds before coming back for landing.
NASA’s Ingenuity team members provided a final update Friday before the upcoming flight.
“It gives me the chills sitting here and thinking about the fact that on Sunday my team and I are going to be taking images and video of you guys flying on Mars,” Elsa Jensen, with the Mars Exploration Program, said.
If its first flight is a success, Ingenuity’s project manager Mimi Aung said it will fly the helicopter higher and for longer on its following flights.
“Each world gets only one first flight,” Aung said. “The Wright brothers achieved the first flight on Earth. Ingenuity is poised to go for being the first for Mars.”
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