NASA engineers are confident their helicopter’s maiden flight to Mars will be on the Red Planet on Monday, after an earlier flight was delayed by a software glitch.
The Ingenuity helicopter, which was dropped on the Martian surface by NASA’s Perseverance rover, is intended to prove that flight to Mars is possible.
Engineers on Earth will order the helicopter to begin a planned flight, climbing three meters and hovering for 30 seconds in the thin Martian atmosphere, before landing on the surface.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where the craft was designed, will broadcast the event on its YouTube channel, with coverage of the event starting at 7:30 a.m. GMT.
The Perseverance rover was positioned near Ingenuity in the Jezero de Mars crater to capture images of the flight using its cameras.
Since Mars is over 280 million kilometers from Earth, any images or video captured with the rover’s cameras are unlikely to reach us before the flight.
As with the Perseverance landing, the flight broadcast will be based on helicopter telemetry and analysis by JPL scientists and engineers.
The success of the first powered flight to an alternate planet hinges on the execution of Ingenuity’s pre-programmed instructions using its autonomous on-board navigation systems.
If the test is successful, Ingenuity will undertake several more flights of increasing complexity and duration over the next several weeks, between four to five day rest periods while it recharges its batteries.
But the helicopter’s failure to land on its four feet could be a disaster.
“It doesn’t have a self-righting system, so if we have a bad landing, that will be the end of the mission,” MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager, said in a recent briefing.
NASA hopes that Ingenuity will pave the way for future efforts to explore the planets and moons of the solar system from the air, including Mars and Saturn’s moon, Titan.
While Mars has much less gravity to overcome than Earth, its atmosphere is only 1% denser, which presents a particular challenge for aerodynamic lift.
To compensate, engineers fitted Ingenuity with larger rotor blades that spin much faster than what would be needed on Earth for an aircraft of this size.
The design has been successfully tested in vacuum chambers built at JPL to simulate Martian conditions, but it remains to be seen whether Ingenuity will fly to the Red Planet.
“The moment our team has been waiting for is almost here,” Ms. Aung said.