Mars Helicopter Ready for First Flight on Sunday – UPDATE

Mars Helicopter Ready for First Flight on Sunday – UPDATE

NASA continues to plan for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter to make its first flight on Sunday, though the date still could change. All the tests conducted so far indicate everything is ready for the technology demonstration to begin, but there is one more test tonight and winds on Mars could also trigger a delay. [UPDATE, April 10: the first flight has been postponed to no earlier than April 14 due to a problem during a test Friday night.]

The tiny 4-pound (1.8 kilogram) helicopter will be the first vehicle to make a powered flight on another world.  NASA likens it to the Wright Brothers’ airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, NC in 1903 and a piece of fabric from their Wright Flyer is attached to Ingenuity.

The $80 million helicopter arrived at Mars in the “belly” of the Mars Perseverance rover. Over the past week, the helicopter was lowered from Perseverance to the Martian surface and physically separated from it. Now it must rely on its own systems for survival.

A selfie of Perseverance and Ingenuity compiled from 62 images taken by a camera on Perseverance’s robotic arm shows the two about 13 feet (3.9 meters) apart after Perseverance backed away so Ingenuity’s solar panels could recharge its batteries. The robotic arm with its WATSON camera is not visible in the image since it was taking the pictures. The large camera sticking out from the top is MASTCAM-Z.  Perseverance has 23 cameras.

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover took a selfie with the Ingenuity helicopter, seen here about 13 feet (3.9 meters) from the rover. This image was taken by the WATSON camera on the rover’s robotic arm on April 6, 2021. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA, explained at a press conference today that Ingenuity already passed a number of tests since deployment from Perseverance, including spinning its 4-foot (1.2 meter) long blades at 50 revolutions per minute (rpm). Tonight they will run a test at full speed, about 2,500 rpm.

[UPDATE: The test did NOT go as planned and the first flight has been postponed until at least Wednesday. ]

If all goes well and the winds are acceptable, Ingenuity will lift off Sunday at 12:30 pm local time on Mars, which is 8:00 pm Pacific Daylight Time (11:00 pm Eastern). The time was chosen because of expected wind conditions at the site. The goal for this first test is to reach an altitude of 10 feet (3 meters), turn, and land. The entire flight will take just 40 seconds.

Cameras on Ingenuity and Perseverance will capture images of the flight, but NASA is especially interested in the engineering data that tells the tale of exactly what took place. The data must flow from Ingenuity to Perseverance to NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter orbiting Mars and back to JPL. They expect the first data and perhaps some black and white images to arrive about 12:30 am Monday PDT (3:30 am Eastern). Color images from Ingenuity will have to wait a day while the helicopter recharges itself.  Color video will be taken by MASTCAM-Z, but will take some time to transmit back to Earth.

Assuming the flight is on Sunday, NASA will hold a press briefing on Monday morning at 11:00 am EDT to share whatever results they have by then. As more images arrive, NASA will post them as soon as possible at

Aung and NASA Science Mission Directorate head Thomas Zurbuchen emphasized again and again today that this is a technology demonstration mission. No one has attempted powered flight on another world before.  Mars is very different than Earth, with an atmospheric density just 1 percent that of Earth at the surface and one-third Earth’s gravity.

Many tests were performed on Earth that make Aung confident Ingenuity can fly in the Martian environment, but there no sure bets. There are four possible outcomes: full success, partial success, insufficient or no data, or failure. “Regardless we will we learn.”

If the flight goes well, additional tests to higher altitudes and further distances are in store, but Ingenuity’s team has only 30 days to put the helicopter through its paces. Perseverance is a science mission, seeking signs of past microbial life on Mars. No matter what happens, Aung will “turn back the key” to the Perseverance team when the month is over.

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