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The big day is finally here for the team behind NASA’s Mars helicopter ingenuity, which has spent six years developing the first plane to fly on the Red Planet.
On Monday (April 19), the ultralight robot will attempt to take off into the Martian sky and, if successful, this maneuver will be the first powered and controlled flight on another planet. Ingenuity is scheduled to take off at 3:30 a.m. EDT (0730 GMT) on Monday, but its flight controllers are cautious.
If Ingenuity succeeds in lifting off the Martian soil, NASA will broadcast the data from the first test flight live when it arrives at the Ingenuity mission team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. That live broadcast begins at 6:15 a.m. EDT (1015 a.m. PDT) on Monday. You can view that webcast here and on the Space.com home page, as well as direct from NASA TV.
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“Our team views Monday’s first flight as a rocket launch – we are doing everything we can to make it a success, but we also know that we may have to clean up and try again,” said MiMi Aung, project manager. by Ingenuity at JPL. her, she wrote in a NASA blog post on Saturday (April 17). “In engineering, there is always uncertainty, but this is what makes working in advanced technology so exciting and rewarding.”
Monday’s flight will mark the second time NASA is prepared to fly with Ingenuity on Mars. The Mars helicopter’s first flight attempt on April 11 was delayed by a time glitch in its systems, which mission engineers have addressed.
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The $ 85 million Ingenuity will attempt to lift off the ground around noon Mars time when NASA says winds in the area are expected to be milder. The mill will begin to ascend to a height of approximately 10 feet (3 meters). It will float for about 20 seconds, then descend at about 3 feet per second (1 m / s) until it lands again in Jezero Crater.
NASA’s Perseverance rover will act as a communications intermediary between the helicopter, the orbiting spacecraft that aids flight and mission control. The rover will also be an active observer taking photos and videos of this first flight from 330 feet (100 meters) from Ingenuity Airfield.
Today, the downlink team will be watching closely as information is transmitted from the rover through NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) back to Earth, said Tim Canham, Ingenuity operations leader at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (JPL) of NASA, during a press conference on April 9. before the first flight attempt.
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This image from NASA’s Perseverance rover shows the agency’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter just after successfully completing a high-speed gyro test on April 16, 2021.
This image from NASA’s Perseverance rover shows the agency’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter just after successfully completing a high-speed gyro test on April 16, 2021 (Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech).
The first thing they will do is verify that they obtained the data correctly, and then the information is reviewed for evidence that Ingenuity ascended, floated and landed. They will confirm these findings with altimeter data and then know with certainty if the flight occurred or not.
On Monday, the team will also see black-and-white navigation photos taken by the downward-facing 0.5-megapixel camera on the underside of the Ingenuity’s fuselage, according to Canham. Other images, such as Perseverance’s color views, are likely to be downloaded later. The device is also equipped with a horizon-facing 13-megapixel one-color terrain camera, but it is not yet clear when they will be available to the public.
Preparations and challenges
“Until now, we have been talking to Ingenuity every day since the Perseverance rover dropped Ingenuity perfectly to the surface,” Aung said at the April 9 press conference.
Aung added that the helicopter’s energy profile, thermal models, and rotor operating speeds look great and that its sensors have been turned on. Everything is set for a potentially historic operation. “We will test, test and learn regardless of the outcome on this first try,” Aung said.
That approach came in handy when Ingenuity suffered a failure with a “watchdog” timer during final tests for its first flight attempt on April 11. The problem forced NASA to withdraw from the flight attempt while engineers came up with a software solution. In fact, they came up with two.
“If our initial flight approach doesn’t work, the rover will send the new flight control software to the helicopter,” Aung wrote on Saturday. “Then we will need several additional days of preparation to load and test the new software at Ingenuity, retest the rotor in this new configuration and recycle for a first flight attempt.”
Flying on Mars is no easy feat. The atmosphere of the Red Planet is very different from the one that surrounds Earth.
“It’s very difficult to fly on Mars,” explained Amelia Quon, a test engineer at JPL’s chamber of ingenuity, during the April 9 press conference. “The main reason is that the atmosphere is very, very thin. It is about one percent of the density of the atmosphere at sea level [on Earth]. That is the equivalent of about 100,000 feet of altitude on Earth, or three times the height of Mount Everest. We generally don’t fly things that high. Commercial airplanes fly at about 35,000 feet; Earth’s record for helicopter altitude at about 41,000 feet … Mars has an atmosphere thinner than that. Earth, but that’s not enough to counteract the effects of that thin atmosphere. ”
Ingenuity’s first flight is a short and simple technology demo with many implications. If it flies, the helicopter would demonstrate that engineers can successfully build spaceships to fly in the atmospheric conditions of an alien world that they have never experienced first-hand. The demo would also show that it is possible to command a vehicle to fly from a control center that is based on a completely different planet. This could also be the first in a long line of flying interplanetary successors.
Visit Space.com on Monday for full coverage of the Mars Helicopter Ingenuity’s first flight on the Red Planet.