Nasa is set to fly its miniature helicopter on Mars next week, as part of the most advanced technology demonstration ever held by the US space agency.
The $85 million aircraft, called Ingenuity, will perform the first test flight on April 8. If successful, it will become the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.
The 1.8-kilogram rotorcraft is meant to test Nasa’s engineering abilities to pave the way for future, more science-focused, missions.
"Ingenuity is an experimental engineering flight test – we want to see if we can fly at Mars," said MiMi Aung, project manager for the helicopter at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“There are no science instruments on board and no goals to obtain scientific information. We are confident that all the engineering data we want to obtain both on the surface of Mars and aloft can be done within this 30-sol (Martian days) window.”
There are high-resolution images that would be captured by the helicopter’s on-board cameras, as well as imagery and videos of the flight shot by the Perseverance rover.
Ingenuity hitched a ride on the Perseverance’s belly, resting underneath a protective shield, to reach the Red Planet.
The rover, which landed on the Jezero Crater on February 18, travelled to a nearby ‘airfield’, where it is slowly deploying the helicopter.
Ingenuity is currently unfolding from its stowed position and will soon touch down on the Martian surface.
After deployment, Perseverance must travel five meters from the rotorcraft within 25 hours so it does not cast a shadow on the rotorcraft.
Ingenuity’s six lithium-ion batteries can keep the heater running for only that amount time at first, before needing to recharge using its solar panels.
Temperatures there drop as low as minus 90°C, and if left unheated, the helicopter and its components will freeze over.
“As with everything with the helicopter, this type of deployment has never been done before,” said Farah Alibay, the helicopter’s integration lead.
“Once we start the deployment there is no turning back. All activities are closely co-ordinated, irreversible and dependent on each other. If there is even a hint that something isn’t going as expected, we may decide to hold off for a sol or more until we have a better idea what is going on.”
As part of the first test flight, Ingenuity will fly up to three meters and hover for 30 seconds, before landing back on the surface.
It would be able to communicate with Perseverance through their on-board radios.
Depending on the results, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory will decide when and how long the next test flight will be.
Laboratory engineers have designed the helicopter so it can fly in the thin Martian atmosphere, which is 1 per cent the density of Earth’s – making the lift harder.
Ingenuity has four carbon-fibre blades arranged in two rotors that spin in opposite directions at 2,400 rotations a minute.
The high speed helps generate enough lift to become airborne on Mars.
“Mars is hard,” Ms Aung said. “Our plan is to work whatever the Red Planet throws at us the very same way we handled every challenge we’ve faced over the past six years – together, with tenacity and a lot of hard work, and a little Ingenuity.”
To honour the first powered, controlled flight on Earth, Ingenuity is carrying a small amount of the material that covered one of the wings of the Wright brothers’ aircraft, known as the Flyer.
That aircraft took off on December 17, 1903, on the dunes of Kill Devil Hill in North Carolina. It covered 36.5 meters in 12 seconds.
The small swatch of fabric is taped underneath Ingenuity’s solar panel.