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1st Helicopter Flight on Mars Delayed to Wednesday

10 Apr 2021, 1:00 pm

NASA’ Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced Saturday that the attempt to fly the first powered, controlled flight on Mars has been delayed to no earlier than Wednesday, April 14th.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter is seen in a close-up taken by Mastcam-Z, a pair of zoomable cameras aboard the Perseverance rover. This image was taken on April 5, 2021, the 45th Martian day, or sol, of the mission.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Back in February, NASA successfully landed their Mars 2020/Perseverance rover on the Red Planet on the Jezaro Crater.  Arriving with it, a helicopter named Ingenuity that’s scheduled to put the limits of flight to the test.  “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,” said Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters.

JOIN THE FUN — Learn How To Make a Paper Mars Helicopter and Test Your Own Flight! 

It’s been more than a century since the first powered, control flight happened on Earth.  On December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully covered a span of 120 feet in 12 seconds near Kitty Hawk, NC, with their aircraft the “Flyer.”  To commemorate that important moment in time, Ingenuity will be carrying with it a small piece of the material from the Wright brothers’ aircraft as it makes it’s inaugural flight.

The debris shield, a protective covering on the bottom of NASA’s Perseverance rover, was released on March 21, 2021.  The debris shield protects the agency’s Ingenuity helicopter during landing; releasing it allows the helicopter to rotate down out of the rover’s belly. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Right now, the first attempt by NASA to get the helicopter into flight will be no earlier than April 14 as there is still a series of milestones that need to be met.  The reason this date could change will depend on what changes engineers might need to make pertaining to the deployments, preflight checks, and vehicle positioning of both Perseverance and Ingenuity.

What’s the process look like?  The rover first needs to get to the “airfield” where Ingenuity will take off from and then once the helicopter is deployed, there’s a window of only 30 Martian days, or sols, (31 Earth days) for the test flight to occur.  According to a NASA press release, it’s far more difficult to fly in the Martian atmosphere than it would be on Earth — Mars has significant gravity (about one-third that of Earth’s), but its atmosphere is just 1% as dense as Earth’s at the surface.

“Every step we have taken since this journey began six years ago has been uncharted territory in the history of aircraft,” said Bob Balaram, Mars Helicopter chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (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.”

Once Ingenuity is in place on it’s airfield, there’s a whole process that will take six sols in order for deployment to take place and undergo this experimental engineering flight test.

“As with everything with the helicopter, this type of deployment has never been done before,” said Farah Alibay, Mars Helicopter integration lead for the Perseverance rover. “Once we start the deployment there is no turning back.  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.”

READ MORE:  How NASA’s Mars Helicopter Will Reach the Red Planet’s Surface 

When the steps are all complete to prepare for the flight, the team at NASA still has more work to do to finalize everything and decide what time the flight will take place.  They will communicate with Ingenuity through the Perseverance rover, which will act as a liaison to rely the final flight instructions to the helicopter.  According to NASA, several factors will determine the precise time for the flight, including modeling of local wind patterns plus measurements taken by the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) aboard Perseverance.  Ingenuity will run its rotors to 2,537 rpm and, if all final self-checks look good, lift off.  After climbing at a rate of about 3 feet per second (1 meter per second), the helicopter will hover at 10 feet (3 meters) above the surface for up to 30 seconds. Then, the Mars Helicopter will descend and touch back down on the Martian surface.

This image shows where NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter will take its test flights. Helicopter engineers added the locations for the rover landing site, the airfield, and the flight zone on an image taken by the High Resolution Imaging Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

“Mars is hard,” said said MiMi Aung, project manager for Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at JPL.  “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.”

NASA’S SCHEDULE OF EVENTS

We will be covering the latest on Ingenuity’s first flight on Mars, and if you want to learn more about the mission and helicopter in general, check out these links from NASA which breaks everything down in more detail.

MORE:  7 Things to Know About Ingenuity

MORE:  Learn More About the Helicopter on Mars

About the author
Meredith is a Certified Broadcast Meteorologist as designated by the American Meteorological Society.  She was born and raised in Cleveland but has worked from coast to coast covering almost every type of weather.  She's been live out in the field during destructive tropical storms on the Gulf Coast of Florida, raging wildfires in Southern California, and covered the wreckage from tornadoes in t... Load Morehe Great Plains. In 2009, she reported on the damaging hail storm during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and in 2017, the historic California winter storms that produced record rain totals and devastating flash flooding.  Prior to joining WeatherNation, Meredith worked at KEYT/KKFX in Santa Barbara, CA, KOTA-TV in Rapid City, SD, WWSB-TV in Sarasota, FL, and began her career as an intern at WGN-TV in Chicago.  She was Santa Barbara's "Favorite Weathercaster of the Year" in 2016 and the Community Partner of the Year in 2017 for her volunteer work with Make-A-Wish Tri-Counties and awarded with the 2018 Valparaiso University Alumni Association First Decade Achievement Award. Meredith is the current chair of the American Meteorological Society's Station Scientist Committee, which focuses on raising greater awareness & outreach when it comes to science education for viewers.  She's also an accomplished reporter, producing weather and science stories including rocket launches at Vandenberg Air Force Base and the new GOES-16 satellite and it's impacts on weather forecasting. She was the only meteorologist in the nation to do an exclusive report accompanying the GOES-West satellite from Colorado to Florida, and reported on and covered it's launch in 2018.  Meredith's also worked on features that took her paragliding along the coast, white water rafting in Northern California, learning to surf in the Pacific Ocean, and how to be an aerial photographer while flying a single engine plane!