NASA is poised to mark another space milestone in the coming weeks by launching the Ingenuity helicopter over the red planet.
Ingenuity landed with the Perseverance rover last month, which has been beaming back HD images of Mars as part of its search for ancient life on the planet. Recently, NASA deployed Ingenuity’s protective case. During the course of April, Ingenuity is slated to make five flights.
Flying a helicopter on Mars can be daunting given that the planet has one-third Earth’s gravity, 1% of Earth’s atmosphere, and extremely cold temperatures. According to NASA, daytime temperatures can be as cold as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit on Mars. Temperatures that cold can cause instruments to crack if not properly shielded from the cold.
"Every step we have taken since this journey began six years ago has been uncharted territory in the history of aircraft," said Bob Balaram, Mars Helicopter chief engineer at JPL. "And while getting deployed to the surface will be a big challenge, surviving that first night on Mars alone, without the rover protecting it and keeping it powered, will be an even bigger one."
But if Ingenuity can get off the ground, it could be another feat for NASA and space exploration.
"When NASA's Sojourner rover landed on Mars in 1997, it proved that roving the Red Planet was possible and completely redefined our approach to how we explore Mars. Similarly, we want to learn about the potential Ingenuity has for the future of science research," said Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters. "Aptly named, Ingenuity is a technology demonstration that aims to be the first powered flight on another world and, if successful, could further expand our horizons and broaden the scope of what is possible with Mars exploration."
On its first test flight, NASA plans to send it into the air for 30 seconds at a height of 10 feet. Within hours of the test flight, NASA hopes to receive images and videos from the helicopter.