Science

Mars helicopter Ingenuity expected to take flight in early April

The small robotic helicopter that will help the newest Mars rover explore the Red Planet has been freed from its debris shield and could conduct its first flight no earlier than April 8, NASA engineers said Tuesday.

Tiny chopper will attempt 1st powered, controlled flight on another planet

This concept illustration shows what Ingenuity would look like on the surface of Mars. NASA hopes the experimental rotorcraft will help the rover Perseverance find rock and soil samples. (NASA/Getty Images)

The small robotic helicopter that will help the newest Mars rover explore the Red Planet has been freed from its debris shield and could conduct its first flight no earlier than April 8, NASA engineers said Tuesday.

Ingenuity, weighing less than two kilograms, will be conducting the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. It survived the journey to Mars, attached to the belly of the rover Perseverance, as the spacecraft landed on Feb. 18.

The estimated date announced for its inaugural flight "could change by a few days in either direction," said Bob Balaram, Ingenuity chief engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California.

"We are right now in the process of having the rover drive us to a location, which will be our airfield," he said. That site is in Jezero Crater, not far from where Perseverance landed.

Once the rover completes the dropoff, it will carefully back away, allowing Ingenuity's solar array to charge, Farah Alibay, a Canadian systems engineer at JPL, told the briefing.

Ingenuity will then undergo a week of tests on its sensors, the solar mechanisms and the motors to make sure it can lift off in the thin Martian atmosphere, Balaram said.

Once deployed, the craft has a window of up to 31 Earth days to conduct test flights, NASA said.

For its first flight, Ingenuity will climb to an altitude of just three metres, hover in place for about 30 seconds, make a turn while hovering, and then come down and land, Ingenuity chief pilot Håvard Grip said.

He said Ingenuity is preloaded with instructions and knows what NASA teams would like it to do, "but has to work very hard during the flight itself to make that happen."

Grip said Ingenuity will be able to take photos of the surface at a rate of 30 images per second and analyze those in order to track the features on the ground to see how the craft is moving across that terrain.

"It combines that with other sensor measurements in order to make tiny adjustments to the controls, 500 times per second, to stay exactly on the trajectory that we've prescribed for it and fight off disturbances that try to take it away from that trajectory, like winds and gusts," he said.

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