Humanity’s first Wright brothers moment on another planet will happen in April.
The Ingenuity Mars helicopter will attempt the first controlled, powered flight on Mars no earlier than April 8, according to NASA.
It’s fitting that the mission, an experimental companion to the Perseverance rover, is carrying a piece of history. A postage stamp-size piece of muslin fabric that covered one of the wings from the Wright brothers’ Flyer 1 is attached to a cable beneath the helicopter’s solar panel.
A different piece of the wing’s material, known as “Pride of the West” – along with a splinter of wood from the Flyer – was flown on Apollo 11 in 1969, traveling to the moon and back.
The first powered, controlled flight on Earth took place aboard the Flyer near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, when Orville and Wilbur Wright flew 120 feet for 12 seconds in December 1903. History was made when the Wright brothers conducted four separate flights on December 17, 1903, and each one was a little longer than the previous one.
The Ingenuity team hopes to do the same.
“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 NASA’s Planetary Science Division, in a statement.
However, before this historic flight on Mars, Ingenuity has to complete a series of steps that will occur over the next couple of weeks – and they will test the 4-pound rotorcraft’s ability to survive the harsh conditions of Mars without the help of Perseverance.
For now, Ingenuity remains safely tucked up beneath the rover and attached to the rover’s power supply. The debris shield, which protected the helicopter during the February landing of the rover on Mars, was released March 21.
The rover is currently driving to the nearby 33-by-33-foot (10-by-10-meter) airfield that Ingenuity’s team has chosen to test the helicopter’s flight. The site has been named in honor of Jakob van Zyl, former director for solar system exploration and associate director for project formulation and strategy at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. He died in August 2020.
After depositing Ingenuity on the surface, which is nice and flat, Perseverance will carefully back away and take pictures of the helicopter. While it sounds simple, this process will take just over six days. Commands sent from teams on Earth will help release the locking mechanism holding the helicopter against the rover’s belly.
Once it’s on the Martian surface, the helicopter will do some test wiggles and spins of the rotor blades. It will have to charge itself using its solar panel and withstand the freezing Martian nights, which can dip to negative 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ingenuity will have 31 days to conduct its series of test flights, which could include up to five depending on the success of the first one. The first flight involves the helicopter lifting about 10 feet off the ground and hovering for about 30 seconds before landing. Subsequent flights will last longer.
“Ingenuity is an experimental engineering flight test – we want to see if we can fly at Mars,” said MiMi Aung, project manager for Ingenuity Mars helicopter at JPL. “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 window.”
Sols are Martian days, which last slightly longer than Earth days.
This is why Ingenuity was designed to be small and lightweight – and built with internal heaters to survive frigid nights.
“Every step we have taken since this journey began six years ago has been uncharted territory in the history of aircraft,” Balaram said of Ingenuity.”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.”