NASA is about to fly its Mars helicopter for the very first time, this will be the first man-made vehicle that will fly on Mars. The feat could revolutionize spaceflight.
The helicopter, which is called the Ingenuity, traveled nearly 300 million miles to the red planet hidden inside the Perseverance rover. Now it’s sitting in an airfield in Mars’ Jezero Crater, where it’s set to take the first controlled powered flight ever carried out on another planet early on Monday.
You can watch NASA try this feat via a Livestream from mission control at the JPL in Pasadena, California. But you’ll have to either stay up late or wake up early: The stream begins at 3:30 a.m. ET on Monday.
Ingenuity will conduct its entire flight autonomously. The 4-pound rotorcraft is set to spin its four carbon-fiber blades in opposite directions at about 2,400 revolutions per minute — about eight times as fast as a passenger helicopter on Earth. That’s necessary because the Martian atmosphere is 100 times thinner than Earth’s.
The rapid rotor spinning should lift Ingenuity about 10 feet off the ground, then gently lower it back down for this first flight. If all goes well, Ingenuity will attempt up to four more airborne escapades after that over the course of 30 days. Each of those flights would be increasingly difficult, with the drone venturing higher and farther each time.
Because it takes at least eight minutes for a signal from Mars to traveling to Earth, and vice versa, the engineers and technicians who run Ingenuity can only bite their nails and wait for the signal that the helicopter has flown and landed on Monday.
“I’m sure we’re all going to be pretty on edge,” Josh Ravich, the mechanical lead for the Ingenuity team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Insider. “Definitely nervous. I mean, it’s after years and years of work, you know, kind of waiting for that little one moment to come back.”
Ingenuity is a technology demonstration meant to test NASA’s rotorcraft technology on another planet. So beyond flying and capturing photos and video from the air, it won’t conduct any science. But it could pave the way for future extraterrestrial helicopters that would do reconnaissance for rovers and astronauts, study the surface of Mars or other planets from the air, and fly through canyons and cliffs that may be inaccessible to rovers.
The NASA TV Livestream below will show the agency’s Space Flight Operations Facility starting at 3:30 a.m. ET on Monday. That’s where engineers like Ravich will be waiting anxiously to hear from the helicopter.
If everything goes as NASA hopes, Ingenuity’s fifth and final flight will carry the helicopter over 980 feet (300 meters) of Martian ground.
“Each one of those is probably going to be, you know, a pretty tense and exciting experience,” Ravich said.
But even if Ingenuity only completes this first 10-foot hover, that will be a major achievement.
“It will be truly a Wright brothers moment but on another planet,” MiMi Aung, the project manager for the helicopter team, said in a briefing before the rover landed. “Every step going forward will be first of a kind.”