NASA will try to fly Ingenuity for the first time early next month. The agency has announced plans to test the prototype 4-pound helicopter no earlier than April 8. Ingenuity made its way to Mars tethered to NASA’s belly Perseverance rover, which successfully landed on the surface of the red planet on February 18.
Perseverance will deploy Ingenuity over a 33-by-33-foot expanse of land in Jezero Crater that NASA has selected for its flatness. The whole process will take around six days, with one procedural step involving a pyrotechnic cable cutter. Once Perseverance abandons Ingenuity, it will carefully move away from the helicopter to give its solar cells the chance to recharge. Once deployed, NASA will attempt to complete the entire test flight process in approximately 31 days. “As with anything helicopter-related, this type of deployment has never been done before,” said Farah Alibay, systems engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
If all goes according to plan, Ingenuity’s first test flight will see it hover about 10 feet above the surface of the planet for 30 seconds. So far, NASA has only had the chance to fly Ingenuity to Earth, where it has tested it in vacuum chambers and laboratories. Driving a vehicle over Mars presents unique challenges. Although there is less gravity on the planet, the atmosphere is also much less dense. But perhaps the biggest challenge the robot faces is the cold temperature of Mars. Nighttime temperatures can drop to minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit. “March is tough,” said MiMi Aung, project manager for Ingenuity at JPL. “Our plan is to work whatever the Red Planet throws at us in the same way we’ve handled all of the challenges we’ve faced over the past six years – together, tenaciously and a lot of hard work, and a little ingenuity.