NASA Prepares for First Ingenuity Helicopter Flight on Mars-news

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An illustration of NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter flying on Mars. (Photo via NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is readying itself for deployment as soon as next month.

The chopper, also known as Ginny, will soon make the first attempt at powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet. Before the 4 pound (only 1.5 pounds on Mars) helicopter can make history, though, it and its team must meet a series of important goals. The copter requires an elaborate, nearly week-long process before it can even think about taking its first flight.

“Once we start the deployment there is no turning back,” Mars Helicopter integration lead Farah Alibay explained. “All activities are closely coordinated, irreversible, and dependent on each other. If there is even a hint that something isn’t going as expected, we may decide to hold off for a sol or more until we have a better idea what is going on.”

Still attached to the belly of NASA’s Perseverance rover, which touched down on Mars in February, Ingenuity is in transit to the “airfield” where it will attempt to fly. Once deployed, Ginny is expected to lift off as many as five times over 30 Martian sols (31 Earth days). Each 90-second flight could reach altitudes of 10-16 feet and travel as far as 160 feet.

“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,” Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters, explained. “Aptly named, Ingenuity is a technology demonstration that aims to be the first powered flight on another world and, if successful, could further expand our horizons and broaden the scope of what is possible with Mars exploration.”

That’s easier said than done, though. Thanks to a less-than-ideal Martian atmosphere—which receives about half the amount of solar energy as Earth during the daytime and can hit temperatures as low as -130℉ at night—Ginny must be small and lightweight, but still carry enough energy to power internal heaters. The system has been tested and retested in the vacuum chambers and test labs of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in preparation.

“Every step we have taken since this journey began six years ago has been uncharted territory in the history of aircraft,” according to Bob Balaram, Mars Helicopter chief engineer at JPL. “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.”

Without any science instruments onboard or goals to obtain specific information, Ingenuity’s only goal is to fly. “Mars is hard,” JPL project manager MiMi Aung. “Our plan is to work whatever the Red Planet throws at us the very same way we handled every challenge we’ve faced over the past six years—together, with tenacity and a lot of hard work, and a little Ingenuity.”

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