NASA Readies Mars Helicopter for First Flight

 - March 25, 2021, 8:00 AM
NASA's Ingenuity helicopter is expected to fly on Mars in the next few weeks (Image: NASA)

NASA's $80 million, four-pound Ingenuity Mars helicopter could fly by early April, the agency said this week. However, the miniature rotorcraft first needs to be successfully separated from the Perseverance surface rover and complete a complicated series of preflight tests, including spooling up the composite coaxial rotor system to 2,537 rpm. That entire process is expected to last several days.

Both vehicles landed together on the surface of the Red Planet on February 18 following an eight-month journey from Earth. The helicopter is still attached to the belly of Perseverance and the vehicle is en route to a 10- by 10-meter “airfield” selected for its flat terrain and lack of obstacles.

The first flight is expected to climb at a rate of one meters per second, attain an altitude of five meters, and hover for 30 seconds. Parked nearby, Perseverance will downlink Ingenuity’s first set of engineering data and, possibly, images and video from the rover’s navigation cameras and mastcam.

Subsequent flights are expected to expand the flight envelope to a maximum altitude of five meters over a pre-selected course that measures a mere 90 meters end-to-end.

While Ingenuity is not kitted with any scientific instruments, it is equipped with a camera system that can take images of the ground at a rate of 30 per second and analyze them, combining with a sensor system that can adjust flight controls at a rate of 500 per second to ensure vehicle trajectory and stability.

Ingenuity’s flight campaign is expected to last 31 Earth days. The aircraft is fitted with a postage-stamp-size piece of fabric from the original Wright Flyer.