Ingenuity’s First Flight Targeted for April 8

Ingenuity’s First Flight Targeted for April 8

NASA revealed today that the first flight of Ingenuity, the tiny helicopter delivered to Mars with the Perseverance rover, is targeted for April 8, although the actual date could move a little earlier or later.  The first vehicle to make a powered flight on another world, it carries a piece of fabric from the plane flown by the Wright Brothers in 1903.

Ingenuity is a technology demonstration mission whose main purpose is simply to discover if it is possible to fly on Mars. The extremely thin atmosphere, just 1 percent as dense as Earth’s at the surface, makes flight difficult. Designing the rotor blades to develop sufficient lift was an engineering challenge.

Mission managers at a press conference today emphasized that Ingenuity is not part of the primary science mission for Perseverance and only 31 days — the “month of Ingenuity” — are set aside for flying it.  Then Perseverance will get on with its main tasks.

The 4 pound (1.8 kilogram) helicopter has cameras, but no scientific instruments.  For its first flight, it will rise to an altitude of about 10 feet (3 meters), hover for 30 seconds, and then land.

From NASA’s perspective, achieving just that will be mission accomplished, but as many as four more flights could take place if all goes well.  The maximum altitude planned is 16 feet (5 meters).

The helicopter rode to Mars in the “belly” of Perseverance protected by a debris shield that was dropped from the rover on Sunday, but Ingenuity remains attached to the rover. It will remain there as the rover drives to the designated “airfield” from which it will take flight.

Bobby Braun, JPL’s Director of Planetary Science, announced the area will be named the Van Zyl Overlook in honor of Jakob Van Zyl, the late JPL Director of Solar System Exploration who died unexpectedly last summer soon after Perseverance and Ingenuity were launched. He led many projects at JPL.  Ingenuity was the last.

Once at the airfield, Ingenuity will be lowered to the surface over the course of six days. Then Perseverance will back away, leaving it on its own for the first time.

Bob Balaram, Ingenuity’s chief engineer at JPL, said that “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.”

To commemorate the first powered flight on another planet, Ingenuity carries a piece of the Wright Brother’s Flyer, which made the first controlled, powered flight on Earth on December 17, 1903 at Kill Devil Hill, North Carolina.

Ingenuity is not the first vehicle to fly on another planet, though. That distinction belongs to balloons dropped into the atmosphere of Venus by Vega 1 and 2, a pair of Soviet/European probes that dropped the balloons and landers off at Venus before visiting Halley’s Comet.

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