- Jonathan Amos
- BBC reporter
The US Space Agency (NASA) has said that it expects to make its first flight on Mars with a helicopter unmanned aircraft that will fly and land from a small airport on the surface of the Red Planet in early April.
NASA succeeded in transporting the small helicopter to the surface of the Red Planet by means of the Perseverance spacecraft, which landed dramatically in the Jezero Crater area, more than a month ago.
The 1.8-kilogram helicopter dubbed Ingenuity will attempt to make short jumps in the loosely or slightly dense atmosphere of the Martian surface.
NASA said that if the helicopter succeeded in flying on Mars, it would be “a moment of success for the Wright brothers on the first flight to the planet.”
This is an indication of the achievement of the brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright in the first flying test of a kinetic energy-powered plane heavier than air in 1903.
In order to establish a historical link between the two important events on Earth and Mars, NASA placed a piece of postage stamp-sized cloth from the wing of the Wright brothers’ plane that first flew to Earth in the Ingenote helicopter and affixed it to its hull.
So far, the NASA helicopter is still linked to the parent vehicle that landed on Mars, and it is hanging in its stomach from below and will separate from it and fall down, and then the vehicle will move from above to start the flight.
And NASA announced at the weekend that the protective cover that surrounded the helicopter had fallen under the vehicle, which means that the helicopter’s landing on Mars is imminent.
The engineers identified an area of 100 square meters (10 by 10 meters) in the Jezero area where the vehicle landed as the “airport” from which the helicopter will take off and return to.
The airport is located at one end of the previously defined “flight zone” in which the aircraft will reach an altitude of 90 meters, and it is possible that five sorties will be carried out within this flight zone.
The Perseverance will record everything and the helicopter’s flight through its cameras.
“We will do our best to take pictures of the helicopter in flight,” said Farah Ali Bay, a NASA engineer. “We’ll take pictures, and hopefully we’ll take the video.”
She warned that this process will be a challenge. The vehicle as well as the helicopter are operated by independent autonomous control and have separate stopwatches. And the timing devices must be in sync, especially during flight, in order for the vehicle to capture the action.
The Ingenuity helicopter is designed to be extremely lightweight, so you can take off and fly through the delicate atmosphere of Mars.
It is equipped with two fans, each fan has two blades and is specially made of carbon fiber, and the two fans are on top of each other with a length of one meter, and each one rotates opposite the other about 2400 revolutions per minute. That’s several times faster than the rotational speed of the blades of a passenger helicopter here on Earth.
Engineers plan for the first flight to be a simple flight, in which the helicopter rises to only three meters, hovers and rotates for about 30 seconds, before landing again.
If the first flight test is successful, the subsequent ones will be more complex and longer.
“The way we’re planning at the moment is for the first three flights to show the basic ability to fly, cross over, go a longer distance in the flight area and back again,” said Havard Gharib, the chief pilot who will be controlling the Ingenuity helicopter, to BBC News.
“If things go really well, we might try to expand our capabilities. But we haven’t planned that in detail,” he added.
When asked if the team might try something exciting for a final flight, he refused to make any predictions.
Lori Glees, who directs the planet’s science effort at NASA, said the Ingenuity helicopter could open up possibilities for aerial exploration of Mars in the future.
“Can a helicopter explore areas in the future before the arrival of rovers and help chart the most efficient path to get the best science? Can we support human missions,” she added. Future with air capabilities?
The US Space Agency (NASA) has approved a future mission called Dragonfly, which will use a robotic helicopter to fly across the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan in the 1930s.
The Soviets were the first to send spacecraft to another world, through the Vega balloons that flew through the atmosphere of Venus in the 1980s.