NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity to take its first flight

19 Apr 2021

Mars helicopter Ingenuity. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

The Ingenuity helicopter on Mars is set to make history with its first attempt at a powered, controlled flight on another planet.

NASA is attempting to launch a helicopter from the surface of Mars today (19 April) in a historic moment for space travel.

The Mars Ingenuity mission is a technology demonstration that will test powered flight for the first time in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars. The test flight will take place on the floor of a vast Martian basin called Jezero Crater.

If the first flight goes according to plan, the 1.8kg solar-powered helicopter will take off a few feet from the ground, hover in the air for between 20 and 30 seconds, and land.

After that, the team will attempt additional experimental flights of incrementally greater distances and altitudes.

The helicopter was carried to the Red Planet in NASA’s Perseverance rover, which touched down on Mars on 18 February.

Ingenuity was due to take its debut flight on 11 April, but this was postponed due to a software issue with the command sequence, which has since been resolved.

NASA has likened the demonstration flight to the Wright Brothers’ achievement 117 years ago, when the first ever controlled flight of a motor-driven airplane flew 37 metres in 12 seconds. As a tribute to the historic Wright Brothers moment, NASA has attached a small piece of wing fabric from the original Wright flyer under Ingenuity’s solar panel.

Those interested can watch the flight live with helicopter team in mission control from 10.15am UTC.

NASA hopes to receive images and video of the flight from cameras mounted on the helicopter and on the Perseverance rover, which will be parked less than 100 metres away.

“The moment our team has been waiting for is almost here,” said Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung at a recent briefing.

This Mars helicopter demonstration is supported by NASA’s Science, Aeronautics Research and Space Technology mission directorates.

If the flight test is successful, NASA said the data returned could benefit future explorations of the Red Planet by adding the aerial dimension, which is not currently available.

It also opens up other possible uses for future helicopters on Mars, including a unique viewpoint that current orbiters, rovers or landers can’t offer, with high-definition images and access to terrain that is difficult for rovers to reach.

Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic