After a successful initial test of its rotors, a NASA helicopter stationed on Mars could make its first flight over the Red Planet in two days, according to the US space agency. According to NASA, the four-pound (1.8kg) Ingenuity helicopter will take off from Mars’ Jezero Crater on Sunday at 10:54pm US Eastern Time (8:24 am IST) and hover 10 feet (3 metres) above the surface for a half-minute, marking the first-ever attempt at powered, operated flight on another planet.
“The helicopter is good, it’s looking healthy. Last night, we did our 50 RPM spin, where we spun the blades very slowly and carefully,” said Tim Canham, Ingenuity operations lead, in a press conference.
On Sunday, the idea is for it to climb vertically, hover, and rotate for 30 seconds to photograph the Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars on February 18 with the helicopter attached to its underside.
The Ingenuity would then be lowered down to the ground.
Because of the 15 minutes it takes for signals to travel from Earth to Mars, as well as the daunting atmosphere of the distant world, the flight would be autonomous and pre-programmed into the aircraft.
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“Mars is hard not only when you land, but when you try to take off from it and fly around, too,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager in NASA.
She demonstrated that the planet has slightly less gravity than Earth, but only about 1% of Earth’s atmosphere pressure at the surface.
In order for the Ingenuity to fly, it must be able to spin the rotor blades much faster than a helicopter on Earth.
“When you bring those stuff together, you get a vehicle that demands that any input be perfect,” Aung said.
NASA captured the rotor test in a brief video taken from a few metres away by the rover, which shows what appears to be a small drone.
Aung stated that a second test with the rotors spinning at high speeds will be performed today.
“The only uncertainty remains the actual environment of Mars,” she said, mentioning possible winds.
The unprecedented helicopter activity, which NASA describes as “extremely dangerous,” could yield invaluable data about the conditions on Mars, according to NASA.
In a month’s time, NASA plans to launch up to five flights, each one becoming more difficult.