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NASA to fly mini helicopter on Mars in April

March 24, 2021

If the flight goes ahead as planned, it will be a "Wright brothers' moment" for planetary exploration, a top NASA scientist said.

A full scale model of the experimental Ingenuity Mars Helicopter
The helicopter has been developed to fly in an atmosphere that is 1% the density of Earth'sImage: Patrick T. FALLON/AFP

NASA's Mars Ingenuity helicopter will make the first attempt at powered, controlled test flight on another planet in early April, the US space agency said on Tuesday.

If all goes to plan, the flights will be considered a proof of concept that could revolutionize space exploration.

Such future aircraft would shorten expedition times and enable rugged terrain research.

What is Ingenuity and how it got to Mars?

Ingenuity is a tiny helicopter that weighs 1.8 kilograms. Despite its small size it came with a hefty price tag, costing NASA around $85 million (€71.7 million) to develop.

The small detachable aircraft hitched a ride to Mars on the underside of NASA's Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars in February.

When do we know about the flight?

The helicopter is currently making its way across the planet to the test flight "airfield" strapped to the rover.

NASA did not provide a specific date for the first flight, but the mission's chief engineer Bob Balaram said it could take place around April 8.

NASA's Perseverance mission lands in Mars' Jezero Crater with the parachute deployed
Ingenuity touched down on Mars strapped to belly of the Perseverance roverImage: NASA/AFP

The helicopter has been developed to fly in an atmosphere that is 1% the density of Earth's, which makes achieving lift harder. It will be assisted by a gravity that is one-third of planet Earth's.Its rotor blades would need to spin about five times faster to achieve the same amount of lift as back on our home planet.

Its first flight will involve climbing at a rate of about one meter (three feet) per second to a height of three meters, hovering there for 30 seconds, then descending back to the surface.

The Mars helicopter will also take high-resolution photography as it flies.

Up to five increasingly higher and longer flights are planned over the course of a month.

A 'Wright brothers' moment for space travel

If all goes to plan, the test flight will mark a "Wright brothers' moment," noted Bobby Braun, director for planetary science at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, referencing the pioneers of aviation.

To show the significance of the upcoming flights, Balaram revealed for the first time on Tuesday that Ingenuity is carrying a small piece of cloth that covered one of the wings of the Wright brothers' first aircraft that achieved the first powered flight on Earth at in 1903.

Europe and Mars Exploration

Ingenuity's brother to head to Titan

The first helicopter has yet to leave the ground but a second such experiment is already in the works: Dragonfly, a rotorcraft-lander will launch in 2026 and arrive at Saturn's icy moon Titan in 2034.

kmm/dj (AFP, AP)