NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter will attempt to fly again on Monday, following several delays

mars ingenuity helicopter rotor blades spin
The Perseverance rover captured the Ingenuity helicopter before (left) and after spinning its rotor blades.

  • NASA plans to launch its Ingenuity helicopter on Mars on Monday.
  • “Our team considers Monday’s attempted first flight like a rocket launch,” wrote NASA’s MiMi Aung.
  • The flight had been delayed after a test ended abruptly due to a “watchdog” timer.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

NASA on Saturday said its Ingenuity helicopter may take flight on Mars as soon as Monday.

A flight is planned for 3:30 am EDT after a series of delays pushed the scheduled take-off back. Data is expected to arrive on Earth a few hours later, the agency said in a press release.

“We are optimistic that the helicopter will be able to take off from the Martian surface at this time; however, this is a test and we are prepared that it may not occur,” wrote MiMi Aung, a project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a Saturday blog post.

Aung added: “Ingenuity is a technology experiment. As such, our plan is to push the envelope and learn by doing. We take risks that other missions cannot, weighing each step carefully.”

NASA will launch a livestream at 6:15 am EDT, a few minutes before the flight data is expected to reach the Space Flight Operations Facility.

A successful take-off would mark the first powered-controlled flight on another planet, a milestone that NASA previously compared to the Wright brothers’ flights on Earth.

NASA engineers included fabric from the Wright brothers’ first airplane aboard the helicopter, The Associated Press reported last month.

The helicopter traveled nearly 300 million miles tucked under the belly of the NASA’s Mars rover, the Perseverance. Space enthusiasts have watched as Ingenuity stretched its legs, snapped its first low-resolution picture of the Martian surface, and spun its rotor blades for the first time.

NASA officials a week ago delayed the Ingenuity’s flight after the spinning blades abruptly stopped.

In an April 9 test, the helicopter’s blades were supposed to spin at full speed while its legs remained planted on the Martian surface. They were expected to spin in opposite direction at 2,500 rotations per minute, about eight times faster than helicopters on Earth.

NASA said a “watchdog” timer expired during the test. This is a trigger meant to alert engineers to potential problems with the helicopter.

Aung said Saturday that NASA has been working on two solutions, including adjusting the timing sequence for the helicopter’s transition into “flight mode.”

“Our team considers Monday’s attempted first flight like a rocket launch: We’re doing everything we can to make it a success, but we also know that we may have to scrub and try again,” Aung wrote.

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The first flight of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter on Mars is delayed at least a week because its software needs a tweak

mars ingenuity helicopter rotor blades spin
The Perseverance rover captured images of the Ingenuity helicopter before (left) and after (right) spinning its rotor blades.

NASA is trying to fix a glitch in its Mars helicopter.

The $85 million drone, called Ingenuity, was originally scheduled to make the first controlled, powered flight ever conducted on another planet on Monday. But an issue arose during a crucial ground test on Friday, throwing a wrench in that plan.

Now, NASA says the helicopter won’t fly before April 21. The agency intends to pick a new flight date next week.

In the unsuccessful ground test, Ingenuity was supposed to spin its blades at full speed without lifting off. For the 4-pound drone to fly in the thin Martian atmosphere, its two pairs of blades must spin in opposite directions at more than 2,500 rotations per minute – about eight times faster than a helicopter on Earth. So the test was a final checkout to ensure Ingenuity’s rotors would do just that.

But a “watchdog” timer built into the helicopter cut the test-spin short after it identified an issue with the command sequence that instructs Ingenuity to carry out the steps of the test. The timer intervened as the command sequence was trying to transition the helicopter’s flight computer from “pre-flight” to “flight” mode.

mars helicopter ingenuity nasa gif

After discovering the issue, engineers figured out a software patch that should fix the problem. In the meantime, Ingenuity is still “healthy,” NASA said in a statement on Monday.

Still, the NASA team behind Ingenuity have long known that the helicopter could run into problems, and consider it a “high-risk, high-reward” mission. It’s an experiment, after all, meant to prove that a rotorcraft flight could work on Mars.

“We are aware that failure is more likely in this kind of scenario, and we’re comfortable with it because of the upside potential that success has,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator, told Insider last week, before the spin test. “If something doesn’t go exactly like it’s planned, what we like to do is learn the most about it then go forward.”

Ingenuity’s software fix is ‘straightforward,’ but it takes time

ingenuity helicopter mars
NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter, photographed on Mars by the Perseverance rover on April 4, 2021.

Over the weekend, Ingenuity’s engineers reviewed the data from its failed rotor-spin test and determined that the best fix is a “minor” and “straightforward” tweak to the flight software, according to NASA.

“This software update will modify the process by which the two flight controllers boot up, allowing the hardware and software to safely transition to the flight state,” the agency said in a statement.

It will take several days to run the software change through a validation process, then uplink it to the helicopter on Mars. Once that’s done, Ingenuity can re-do its high-speed spin test and NASA can set a date for its first flight.

If the patch works and Ingenuity flies successfully, it could open the door for a new era of helicopter exploration on other planets. Space drones could do all kinds of things that rovers can’t – flying through canyons or up mountains, hopping in and out of craters, or even doing reconnaissance for future astronauts.

“Suppose that it does, in fact, work. What we will have proven is that we can add an aerial dimension to discovery and exploration on Mars,” Zurbuchen said. “That aerial dimension, of course, opens up aspects of science and overall exploration that, frankly, at this moment in time, are only our dreams.”

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Watch NASA attempt to fly its Ingenuity helicopter on Mars for the first time on Wednesday

mars helicopter ingenuity nasa
An artist’s concept of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter flying.

NASA is about to fly its Mars helicopter for the first time. The feat could revolutionize spaceflight.

The helicopter, called Ingenuity, traveled nearly 300 million miles to the red planet tucked inside the belly of the Perseverance rover. Now it’s sitting in an airfield in Mars’ Jezero Crater, where it’s set to take the first controlled powered flight ever conducted on another planet early on Wednesday.

You can watch NASA attempt this feat via a livestream from mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California (it’s embedded below).

NASA Perseverance
Perseverance took a selfie with Ingenuity on April 6.

The flight was originally scheduled for early Monday, but NASA delayed it after a crucial blade-spin test ended abruptly on Friday. For the test, Ingenuity was supposed to spin its carbon-fiber blades at full speed while on the ground. The two pairs of blades must spin in opposite directions at about 2,500 revolutions per minute – about eight times as fast as a passenger helicopter on Earth – in order to lift the 4-pound drone. That’s necessary because Martian air has just 1% the density of Earth’s atmosphere.

It’s not yet clear what caused the helicopter’s software to cut the test short, but Ingenuity will need to redo the full-speed spin before it can fly. If the redo goes well, Ingenuity will conduct its entire flight autonomously as early as Wednesday.

mars helicopter ingenuity nasa gif

On flight day, the rapid rotor spinning should lift Ingenuity about 10 feet off the ground, hover there, then gently lower it back down. If all goes well, Ingenuity will attempt up to four more airborne escapades over the course of 30 days. Each of those flights would be increasingly difficult, with the drone venturing higher and farther each time.

Because it takes at least eight minutes for a signal from Mars to travel to Earth, and vice versa, the engineers and technicians who run Ingenuity can only bite their nails and wait for the signal that the helicopter has flown and landed on Wednesday.

“I’m sure we’re all going to be pretty on edge,” Josh Ravich, the mechanical lead for the Ingenuity team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Insider. “Definitely nervous. I mean, it’s after years and years of work, you know, kind of waiting for that little one moment to come back.”

Watch NASA fly its Mars helicopter live

Ingenuity is a technology demonstration meant to test NASA’s rotorcraft technology on another planet. So beyond flying and capturing photos and video from the air, it won’t conduct any science. But Ingenuity could pave the way for future extraterrestrial helicopters that would do reconnaissance for rovers and astronauts, study the surface of Mars or other planets from the air, and fly through canyons and cliffs that may be inaccessible to rovers.

The NASA TV livestream below will show the agency’s Space Flight Operations Facility throughout the flight attempt. That’s where engineers like Ravich will be waiting anxiously to hear from the helicopter.

“By its nature, it’s going to have a little bit more risk than a normal mission,” Ravich said. “There’s a lot of things that could go wrong.”

You won’t be able to watch the flight in real time – NASA can’t livestream from another planet – but video of and from the flight will likely become available soon afterward. The helicopter is set to record the ground below it using two cameras on its belly (one in black and white for navigation and one in color). Perseverance, meanwhile, is expected to record the flight from a nearby overlook.

It’s not yet known how long it will take to get that video back to Earth and for NASA to publish it. Perseverance beamed back complete video footage of its landing within three days.

This could be the first of 5 flights

ingenuity helicopter mars
NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter, photographed on Mars by the Perseverance rover on April 4.

If everything goes as NASA hopes, Ingenuity’s fifth and final flight will carry the helicopter over 980 feet (300 meters) of Martian ground.

“Each one of those is probably going to be, you know, a pretty tense and exciting experience,” Ravich said.

But even if Ingenuity only completes this first 10-foot hover, that will be a major achievement.

“It will be truly a Wright brothers moment but on another planet,” MiMi Aung, the project manager for the helicopter team, said in a briefing before the rover landed. “Every step going forward will be first of a kind.”

This post has been updated with new information. It was originally published on Friday, April 9, 2021.

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NASA delays Mars helicopter flight after a crucial rotor-blade-spinning test ended abruptly

mars ingenuity helicopter rotor blades spin
The Perseverance rover captured the Ingenuity helicopter before (left) and after (right) spinning its rotor blades at low speed.

NASA has delayed the first flight of its Ingenuity Mars helicopter after a crucial test-spin of the drone’s rotor blades abruptly stopped.

This was the last major test to make sure the helicopter would be ready for its first flight, which was originally scheduled for early Monday. Now NASA has delayed the historic liftoff – which would mark the first powered, controlled flight on another planet – to Wednesday.

For the test on Friday, Ingenuity was supposed to spin its blades at full speed while on the ground. The two pairs of blades should have spun in opposite directions at more than 2,500 rotations per minute – about eight times faster than an Earth helicopter. On flight day, they’ll need that speed to lift the 4-pound drone into the thin Martian atmosphere. That air has just 1% the density of Earth’s atmosphere, making Ingenuity’s task the equivalent of flying three times higher than the peak of Mount Everest.

But that test spin was abruptly halted when a “watchdog” timer expired, NASA announced on Saturday. This timer ended the command sequence that was instructing Ingenuity to conduct each step of the test. The stop happened as the command sequence was trying to transition the helicopter’s flight computer from “pre-flight” to “flight” mode.

“The watchdog timer oversees the command sequence and alerts the system to any potential issues. It helps the system stay safe by not proceeding if an issue is observed and worked as planned,” NASA’s announcement said.

It’s not yet clear what the issue was, but NASA said the helicopter is “safe and healthy” and fully communicating with mission controllers on Earth. The agency’s helicopter team is reviewing data from the test to diagnose the issue. NASA will have to reattempt the full-speed spin before Ingenuity can fly.

Ingenuity could fly up to 5 times on Mars

NASA Perseverance

Ingenuity traveled nearly 300 million miles to Mars tucked inside the belly of the Perseverance rover. It has successfully unfolded itself from its underbelly hideaway, dropped to the ground, survived frigid Martian nights on its own, charged up with solar energy, and conducted a series of system checks.

All the checkouts and tests had gone well until Friday’s full-speed spin.

“So far so good, knock on wood,” MiMi Aung, the project manager for Ingenuity, said in a briefing before that final test on Friday.

For its first flight, Ingenuity is supposed to lift itself about 10 feet into the air, hover, then lower itself safely back to the ground. If that goes well, Ingenuity could attempt up to four more increasingly difficult flights.

“We’re all kind of a little bit nervous and excited at the same time,” Thomas Zurbuchen, the agency’s associate administrator for science, told Insider on Friday. “We’re all ready, but we’ll all feel better when it’s done – and successful.”

This is a flight experiment, meant to prove that rotorcraft technology can work on Mars. If it succeeds, it could open the door for future space-helicopters to study regions that rovers can’t reach – mountains, canyons, and rocky terrains – or even do reconnaissance for future Mars astronauts.

“Suppose that it does, in fact, work. What we will have proven is that we can add an aerial dimension to discovery and exploration on Mars,” Zurbuchen said. “That aerial dimension, of course, opens up aspects of science and overall exploration that, frankly, at this moment in time, are only our dreams.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

The Ingenuity Mars helicopter’s blades are spinning ahead of its first flight – making the NASA team ‘nervous and excited’

mars ingenuity helicopter rotor blades spin
The Perseverance rover photographed the Ingenuity helicopter before (left) and after (right) it spun its rotor blades.

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter is charging up and spinning its blades in preparation to fly above the Martian surface.

The 4-pound drone is set to lift off early on Monday, rise 10 feet above the dusty red ground of Mars’ Jezero Crater, then gently touch back down. The entire flight should last about 40 seconds, but it could forever change the way NASA explores other planets.

Future Mars helicopters could scout out canyons and mountains that rovers can’t access, fly in and out of craters, or even do reconnaissance for astronauts.

mimi aung ingenuity helicopter mars perseverance
Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung speaks at a press conference on February 16, 2021.

As for Ingenuity, if its first flight goes well, the rotorcraft will attempt up to four increasingly difficult sojourns into the thin Martian air after that.

“Each world gets only one first flight,” MiMi Aung, the project manager for Ingenuity, said in a briefing on Friday. “The Wright brothers achieved the first flight on Earth. Ingenuity is poised to go for being the first on Mars.”

The $85 million chopper has completed most of its system checkouts, and its solar panels are absorbing enough energy to power its flight. It spun its blades for the first time on Thursday, though that spin was much slower than it will need to be for flight – 50 rotations per minute instead of 2,400.

“So far so good, knock on wood,” Aung said.

Late on Friday, the helicopter is set to test out a full-speed spin.

Meanwhile, the Perseverance rover, which carried Ingenuity to the red planet, has driven to an outlook about 210 feet away. From its perch, the rover is ready to watch and record footage as its helicopter stowaway takes flight.

But nobody is sure Ingenuity will succeed. So as flight day approaches, the engineers behind the helicopter are anticipating the moment of truth when they’ll find out. Ingenuity will conduct its entire flight autonomously, and it takes at least 8 minutes for a signal from Mars to travel to Earth, and vice versa. So once the process begins, the Ingenuity team can only bite their nails and wait for the signal of success.

NASA Perseverance
Perseverance took a selfie with Ingenuity on April 6, 2021.

“I’m feeling a lot of emotions,” Josh Ravich, who leads Ingenuity’s mechanics teams, told Insider. “A lot of the team, myself included, are very hesitant to celebrate prematurely. So even as we’re making really exciting milestones, getting prepared for first flight, we’re still holding our enthusiasm until that flight happens.”

The feeling extends to NASA’s leaders, too.

“We’re all kind of a little bit nervous and excited at the same time,” Thomas Zurbuchen, the agency’s associate administrator for science, told Insider. “We’re all ready, but we’ll all feel better when it’s done – and successful.”

Flying through air thinner than on the top of Mount Everest

mars helicopter ingenuity nasa gif

If the full-speed spin test goes well, NASA expects Ingenuity to fly around 3:30 a.m. ET on Monday. That will be about 12:30 p.m. on Mars’ Jezero Crater, when the sun is bright. NASA expects winds to be helicopter-friendly at that time, too.

Even if conditions are perfect, though, flying on Mars is tough. The air there has just 1% the density of Earth’s atmosphere, making Ingenuity’s task the equivalent of flying three times higher than the peak of Mount Everest. To catch enough lift with so few molecules to push against, the helicopter’s two pairs of blades will have to spin in opposite directions at a speed roughly eight times faster than a passenger helicopter on Earth.

“There were some people who doubted we could generate enough lift to fly in that thin Martian atmosphere,” Amiee Quon, who tested Ingenuity in a Mars-simulation chamber on Earth, said in the Friday briefing.

It worked in the test chamber, but flying on Mars is a different story.

“There are four possible outcomes. The first is for success. Second, partial success. Third could be insufficient or no data coming back, which means we’ll have to take more time to figure out what’s happened. Or it could be failure,” Aung said.

‘High-risk, high-reward’

perseverance rover landing mars nasa mission control celebrates
The Perseverance surface-operations team celebrates the rover’s landing from their mission-control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, February 18, 2021.

Because Ingenuity is a demonstration of technology that’s never been used on Mars before, it’s “high-risk, high-reward,” according to Zurbuchen.

“There’s a lot of a lot of things that could certainly go wrong, I guess, besides crashing or not working at all. You can imagine 1,000 ways that either of those things could happen,” Ravich said.

The worst-case scenario, he added, is that Ingenuity doesn’t get off the ground at all. Even if it flies a little bit and crashes, the team could potentially salvage data from the robot and learn lessons for future space helicopters.

If the rotorcraft does fly and land smoothly, even just for this first flight, Ingenuity could revolutionize the way NASA investigates other planets.

“Suppose that it does, in fact, work. What we will have proven is that we can add an aerial dimension to discovery and exploration on Mars,” Zurbuchen said. “That aerial dimension, of course, opens up aspects of science and overall exploration that, frankly, at this moment in time, are only our dreams.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

Watch NASA attempt to fly its Ingenuity helicopter on Mars for the first time early on Monday

mars helicopter ingenuity nasa
An artist’s concept of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter flying.

NASA is about to fly its Mars helicopter for the first time. The feat could revolutionize spaceflight.

The helicopter, called Ingenuity, traveled nearly 300 million miles to the red planet tucked inside the belly of the Perseverance rover. Now it’s sitting in an airfield in Mars’ Jezero Crater, where it’s set to take the first controlled, powered flight ever conducted on another planet early on Monday.

You can watch NASA attempt this feat via a livestream from mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California (it’s embedded below). But you’ll have to either stay up late or wake up early: The stream begins at 3:30 a.m. ET on Monday.

NASA Perseverance
Perseverance took a selfie with Ingenuity on April 6, 2021.

Witnessing the first extraterrestrial helicopter flight may be worth it, though.

Ingenuity will conduct its entire flight autonomously. The 4-pound rotorcraft is set to spin its four carbon-fiber blades in opposite directions at about 2,400 revolutions per minute – about eight times as fast as a passenger helicopter on Earth. That’s necessary because the Martian atmosphere is 100 times thinner than Earth’s.

mars helicopter ingenuity nasa gif

The rapid rotor spinning should lift Ingenuity about 10 feet off the ground, then gently lower it back down for this first flight. If all goes well, Ingenuity will attempt up to four more airborne escapades after that, over the course of 30 days. Each of those flights would be increasingly difficult, with the drone venturing higher and further each time.

Because it takes at least 8 minutes for a signal from Mars to travel to Earth, and vice versa, the engineers and technicians who run Ingenuity can only bite their nails and wait for the signal that the helicopter has flown and landed on Monday.

“I’m sure we’re all going to be pretty on edge,” Josh Ravich, mechanical lead for the Ingenuity team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Insider. “Definitely nervous. I mean, it’s after years and years of work, you know, kind of waiting for that little one moment to come back.”

Watch NASA fly its Mars helicopter live

Ingenuity is a technology demonstration meant to test NASA’s rotorcraft technology on another planet. So beyond flying and capturing photos and video from the air, it won’t conduct any science. It could, however, pave the way for future extraterrestrial helicopters that would do reconnaissance for rovers and astronauts, study the surface of Mars or other planets from the air, and fly through canyons and cliffs that may be inaccessible to rovers.

The NASA TV livestream below will show the agency’s Space Flight Operations Facility starting at 3:30 a.m. ET on Monday. That’s where engineers like Ravich will be waiting anxiously to hear from the helicopter.

“By its nature, it’s going to have a little bit more risk than a than a normal mission,” Ravich said. “There’s a lot of things that could go wrong.”

You won’t be able to watch the flight itself in real time – NASA can’t livestream from another planet – but video of and from the flight will likely become available soon afterwards. The helicopter is set to record the ground below it using two cameras on its belly (one in black-and-white for navigation and one in color). Perseverance, meanwhile, is expected to record the flight from a nearby overlook.

It’s not yet known how long it will take to get that video back to Earth, and for NASA to publish it. Perseverance beamed back complete video footage of its landing within three days.

This could be the first of 5 flights

ingenuity helicopter mars
NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter, photographed on Mars by the Perseverance rover on April 4, 2021.

If everything goes as NASA hopes, Ingenuity’s fifth and final flight could carry the helicopter over 980 feet (300 meters) of Martian ground.

“Each one of those [flights] is probably going to be, you know, a pretty tense and exciting experience,” Ravich said.

But even if Ingenuity only completes this first 10-foot hover, that would be a major achievement.

“It will be truly a Wright brothers moment, but on another planet,” MiMi Aung, the project manager for the helicopter team, said in a briefing before the rover landed. “Every step going forward will be first of a kind.”

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‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Bot’: NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover is snapping remarkable new selfies

perservance camera selfie
Perseverance photographed its own cameras.

NASA’s Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter are having some fun on Mars ahead of the rotorcraft’s highly anticipated first liftoff.

That flight, which could pioneer a new method of planetary exploration, is scheduled to take place early Monday morning, around 3:30 a.m. ET. So before clearing the area, Perseverance co-starred in a selfie with the tiny helicopter.

The selfie is actually a mosaic of 62 individual images taken on Tuesday. Citizen scientist Seán Doran stitched the photos together and adjusted the brightness to create a stunning composite.

NASA Perseverance
Perseverance stares back at the Ingenuity helicopter.

Perseverance also snapped a solo shot – this time a single image – on Tuesday that offers a close-up look at the remote-sensing mast on the end of its robotic arm (the part that functions as a selfie stick).

NASA cheekily titled that photo “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Bot,” a reference to James Joyce’s novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”

The rover’s rotating arm is perfect for selfie-taking

Perseverance is equipped with 23 cameras. Some help the rover navigate Martian terrain, spotting potential hazards like large rocks or trenches. Others allow human operators on Earth to check that the rover’s parts are in good shape.

The rover’s two newest selfies were taken by WATSON, a wide-angle sensor that captures the texture and structure of Martian rocks in fine detail. Since it’s attached to Perseverance’s robotic arm, the camera can rotate to snap photos of the rover itself.

Perseverance selfie
Perseverance rotates its robotic arm.

“Portrait of the Artist as a Young Bot” also showcases the rover’s 23-pound SuperCam, which can fire a laser at areas smaller than 1 millimeter from more than 20 feet (about 7 meters) away. The heat from the laser turns the rock to plasma, which researchers can then analyze to learn more about Mars’ composition.

Just below the SuperCam is a pair of rectangular cameras called Mastcam-Z. Their powerful zoom lenses can record video and snap three-dimensional and color images.

Mars Perseverance Selfie 2x1
The remote-sensing mast at the end of the rover’s robotic arm.

A mission to uncover ancient life on Mars

Perseverance touched down on Mars in February carrying Ingenuity in its belly. The helicopter fully separated from its host on Saturday and is now positioned about 13 feet (nearly 4 meters) away from the rover. Both are in an ancient lake bed called Jezero Crater.

The location is ideal for hunting for alien fossils: NASA scientists suspect that if fossilized microbes exist on Mars, they could be trapped in clay mineral deposits along the crater’s dried-up lake bottom, shorelines, and river delta. Perseverance’s mission is to examine and collect rocks to see whether that’s the case.

Ingenuity, meanwhile, is a technology demonstration: The 4-pound helicopter – roughly the size of a tissue box – will attempt up to five flights, each more difficult than the last.

The first flight will just test whether Ingenuity can successfully get a few feet off the ground, hover for about 30 seconds, then touch back down. If all goes well, the final flight could carry the helicopter over 980 feet (300 meters) of Martian terrain.

ingenuity mars
Ingenuity extends vertically into place after being rotated outward from its horizontal position on March 29.

To be successful, Ingenuity must fly in Mars’ thin atmosphere and survive frigid temperatures for 30 Martian days (about one Earth month). Nighttime temperatures on Mars can plunge as low as negative-130 degrees Fahrenheit.

So far, the helicopter has made it almost a week since it dropped onto the Martian surface. Ingenuity now has to finish testing its sensors and motors before it’s ready to fly.

Morgan McFall-Johnsen contributed reporting.

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NASA’s Mars helicopter survived its first night alone on the red planet after the Perseverance rover set it free

ingenuity helicopter mars
NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter, photographed on Mars by the Perseverance rover on April 4, 2021.

NASA’s new space helicopter has survived its first night alone on Mars.

After slowly unfolding from its hideaway in Perseverance’s belly, the 4-pound robot dropped the last four inches to the ground on Saturday. By weathering freezing temperatures, Ingenuity – as the helicopter is called – has overcome one of the biggest hurdles in NASA’s quest to fly the first drone on another planet.

Ingenuity is set to conduct its first Martian flight as early as April 11. If that goes well, the space drone will have a roughly 30-day window to attempt up to five increasingly difficult flights, venturing higher and further each time.

NASA’s Perseverance rover, which carried Ingenuity to Mars, will perch nearby and record video. That footage will help NASA collect crucial data about this technological demonstration, since it could pioneer a new method of exploring other planets.

Sitting alone on its Martian airfield, Ingenuity is finally in position for those flights.

Mars ingenuity helicopter nasa perseverance rover
The Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, sitting where the Perseverance rover dropped it, April 5, 2021.

After depositing the helicopter on the ground, the rover backed away, exposing Ingenuity’s solar panels so they could soak up sunlight. This also exposed the rotocraft to frigid Martian nights. In Jezero Crater, the ancient lake basin where Perseverance landed, nighttime temperatures can plunge as low as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

“This is the first time that Ingenuity has been on its own on the surface of Mars,” MiMi Aung, NASA’s project manager for the helicopter, said in a press release. “But we now have confirmation that we have the right insulation, the right heaters, and enough energy in its battery to survive the cold night, which is a big win for the team. We’re excited to continue to prepare Ingenuity for its first flight test.”

Ingenuity’s otherworldly flight could be the first of many

mars helicopter ingenuity nasa
An artist’s concept of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter flying through the Martian skies.

NASA spent $85 million developing Ingenuity. The rotocraft has already proven tough enough to survive the nearly 300-million-mile journey to Mars and weather the planet’s extreme temperatures. But it also has to fly.

Mars has an incredibly thin atmosphere; it’s just 1% of the density of Earth’s. To catch enough air, the helicopter’s four carbon-fiber blades have to spin in opposite directions at about 2,400 revolutions per minute – about eight times as fast as a passenger helicopter on Earth.

Ingenuity’s first flight will just test whether the helicopter can successfully get a few feet off the ground, hover for about 30 seconds, and then touch back down. From there, each test will get more difficult, culminating in a final flight that could carry the helicopter over 980 feet (300 meters) of Martian ground.

mars helicopter ingenuity flight nasa gif
An animation of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter exploring the Martian surface.

Ingenuity won’t conduct any further science on Mars – it’s meant as a technology demonstration – but future space helicopters could open new scientific frontiers on other planets.

“We use drones and helicopters here on Earth for all sorts of things that they’re more suitable for than land-based vehicles,” Håvard Grip, NASA’s chief pilot for Ingenuity, said in a March press briefing.

On other planets, the thinking goes, similar aerial explorers could accomplish tasks that rovers can’t.

“That could be for reconnaissance purposes – taking pictures to scout out areas, potential science targets for future rovers, or even future astronauts on Mars,” Grip said. “Or it could be carrying its own science instruments into areas where you can’t get with a land-based vehicle.”

Once Ingenuity’s test flights are over, Perseverance is expected to drive toward the cliffs of an ancient river delta for its own revolutionary science mission: a search for fossils of ancient alien microbes on Mars.

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New photos from Mars: NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter stretches its legs, while the Curiosity rover stars in a selfie

Curiosity selfie
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used two cameras to take a selfie.

  • NASA’s Curiosity rover used its robotic arm to snap a selfie on Mars last week.
  • A few days later, the agency’s Ingenuity helicopter finally stretched out all four legs.
  • Photos of both events showcase NASA’s growing presence on the red planet.
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There’s a flurry of activity on Mars.

Last week, NASA’s Curiosity rover used its robotic arm to snap an impressive selfie in front of Mont Mercou, a 20-foot-tall rock formation. The photo, released Tuesday, offers a glimpse of the vast Martian landscape. About 2,300 miles away on the same planet, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter finally stretched out all four of its landing legs – and cameras captured that scene, too.

Ingenuity’s mission is to attempt the first controlled aircraft flight on another planet. The helicopter traveled to Mars in the belly of the Perseverance rover, which touched down in February. The rotocraft is now in position to land on the Martian surface, NASA revealed Tuesday – a feat scientists have awaited for months.

Ingenuity four legs
NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter with all four legs outstretched.

Ingenuity will likely fly within weeks, and could be deployed as early as April 8. But its flight – which is meant as a technology demonstration that could pioneer a new method of planetary exploration – will be perilous. The helicopter must lift off in Mars’ thin atmosphere and survive frigid night temperatures for 30 Martian days (roughly one Earth month).

“As with everything with the helicopter, this type of deployment has never been done before,” Farah Alibay, a systems engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. “Once we start the deployment, there is no turning back.”

Ingenuity is hovering 5 inches above the Martian surface

Earlier this month, Perseverance dropped the guitar-shaped shield that protected Ingenuity, exposing the helicopter to Martian air for the first time. From there, it had to be rotated out of its horizontal position beneath the rover using an electric motor. Ingenuity’s legs also had to be unfolded two at a time.

NASA has called the process “reverse origami.”

Now, Ingenuity is almost ready to drop the 5 inches to the ground and make its first contact with the Martian surface.

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Ingenuity extends vertically into place after being rotated outward from its horizontal position on March 29.

That final drop requires the cord between the helicopter and Perseverance to be severed; right now, they’re connected by a single bolt and a couple dozen tiny electrical connectors.

“The most stressful day, at least for me, is going to be that last day, when we finally separate the helicopter and drop Ingenuity on the ground,” Alibay said at a recent press briefing.

Once Ingenuity falls, Perseverance must drive away quickly to expose the helicopter’s solar panels so the drone can begin charging. After its first charging session, Ingenuity will spend about a week testing its sensors and motors before it’s ready to fly.

The helicopter will attempt up to five flights in total.

Its first flight will test whether Ingenuity can successfully get a few feet off the ground, hover for about 30 seconds, then touch back down. Each subsequent test will get more difficult than the last, culminating in a final flight that could carry the helicopter over 980 feet (300 meters) of Martian terrain.

Curiosity is snapping photos while climbing a 3-mile mountain

Unlike Perseverance, NASA’s Curiosity rover isn’t a newcomer to the Martian landscape. The car-sized rover landed on the red planet in 2012.

Since 2014, Curiosity has been climbing the 3-mile-high Mount Sharp, which is located in a large impact basin known as Gale Crater. Along the way, the rover has spotted strange rock formations and evidence of ancient, long-lived lakes.

In early March, Curiosity began approaching Mont Mercou, a rock outcrop named after a mountain in France.

The rover’s camera snapped two panoramas on March 4 while stationed about 130 feet from the cliff face. The photos offer a three-dimensional view of the outcrop’s sedimentary layers. The colors in the images represent how the rocks would appear during daytime on Earth.

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A panorama of Mont Mercou.

On March 16, a camera on the rover’s mast captured 11 more images of Mont Mercou. These were stitched together with another 60 images taken by Curiosity’s robotic arm on Friday.

The resulting “selfie” shows the rover’s full body next to the rock formation.

It also shows Curiosity departing a clay-rich region on Mount Sharp for a sulfate-rich region higher up the mountain. Scientists believe this change in landscape could help explain how Mars became a desert planet. The presence of clay signals a watery environment, whereas sulfates usually form as water evaporates.

To the left of the rover, you can spot a fresh drill hole where Curiosity collected its 30th rock sample from Mars.

By now, Curiosity has been scouring the red planet for signs of microbial life for more than 3,000 Martian days – nearly nine years on Earth.

Once the Ingenuity helicopter finishes its flights, however, Curiosity will no longer be alone in its mission. Perseverance is also designed to hunt for microbes – this time in ancient lake bed called Jezero Crater.

Morgan McFall-Johnsen contributed reporting.

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NASA’s Mars helicopter has made its first appearance on the red planet. It’s set to fly within weeks.

mars helicopter ingenuity nasa
An artist’s concept of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter flying through the Martian skies.

NASA’s Perseverance rover is almost ready to drop a helicopter from its belly.

The $85 million, four-pound rotocraft, called Ingenuity, could pioneer a new approach to exploring other planets. As a technological demonstration, the drone is set to conduct up to five test flights on Mars starting as early as April 8.

mars ingenuity helicopter perseverance rover belly shield drop skitch
A camera on the Perseverance rover captured the Ingenuity helicopter, exposed for the first time, after its shield dropped on March 21, 2021.

The rover and its helicopter stowaway have already begun their journey to an open Martian plain that will serve as an airstrip. On Sunday, Perseverance dropped the guitar-shaped shield that was protecting the helicopter, exposing Ingenuity to Martian air for the first time.

A camera on the rover captured the drone folded up against its belly. Ingenuity will soon unfold itself – a process NASA has called “reverse origami” – and attempt the first controlled flights on another planet.

“We use drones and helicopters, here on Earth, for all sorts of things that they’re more suitable for than land-based vehicles,” Håvard Grip, NASA’s chief pilot for Ingenuity, said in a press briefing on Tuesday.

On other planets, the thinking goes, similar aerial explorers could do all kinds of things rovers can’t.

“That could be for reconnaissance purposes – taking pictures to scout out areas, potential science targets for future rovers, or even future astronauts on Mars,” Grip said. “Or it could be carrying its own science instruments into areas where you can’t get with a land-based vehicle.”

Ingenuity’s mission is to demonstrate that this new kind of spaceflight works. So in the next few weeks, the drone must unfold itself, drop from the rover’s belly, survive frigid Martian nights, and fly in the thinnest atmosphere any rotocraft has ever attempted.

Ingenuity must survive a short drop and freezing Martian nights

NASA announced on Tuesday that the Ingenuity team has picked out an airfield: a 33-by-33-foot patch of flat land near Perseverance’s landing spot. From there, Ingenuity can safely lift off and land, with a roughly 300-foot-long flight zone to explore in the air.

nasa ingenuity helicopter mars flight zone airfield
The area where Ingenuity will attempt its test flights, captured by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Once Perseverance reaches the airfield, it will spend six days maneuvering the helicopter into place, allowing it to unfold itself. Then it will drop Ingenuity the last 5 inches to the ground.

“The most stressful day, at least from for me, is going to be that last day when we finally separate the helicopter and drop Ingenuity on the ground,” Farah Alibay, who leads the team in charge of the helicopter’s integration into Perseverance, said in the briefing.

That’s because Perseverance has to back away quickly, exposing the helicopter’s solar panels so they can charge. That will be critical, since Mars’ surface temperatures at night dip as low as negative 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Ingenuity can only survive one night in those intense conditions without filling up on solar power.

After its first charging session, Ingenuity will spend about a week testing its sensors and motors. If everything is in working order, it will finally be ready to fly.

A month of helicopter flights on Mars

mars helicopter ingenuity nasa gif

Because communicating with spacecraft on Mars takes a few minutes from Earth, ground controllers can’t direct Ingenuity’s flight in real time. So engineers have designed and programmed the helicopter to carry out up to five flights autonomously, within a span of 30 Martian days (roughly one Earth month).

Mars has an incredibly thin atmosphere – just 1% the density of Earth’s. To catch enough air, the helicopter’s four carbon-fiber blades have to spin in opposite directions at about 2,400 revolutions per minute – about eight times as fast as a passenger helicopter on Earth.

“I think the biggest challenge will be that we are flying in the atmosphere of Mars, which has its own dynamics, its own winds, wind gusts, and so forth,” Bob Balaram, NASA’s chief engineer for the helicopter, said in the briefing. “These are things which we tested with wind tunnels in our chamber. We have some confidence that everything will be good. But there’s nothing that beats actually being in the real environment of Mars to see how well the flight and aerodynamics actually works out.”

Ingenuity’s first flight will just test whether the helicopter can successfully get a few feet off the ground, hover for about 30 seconds, then touch back down. From there, each test will get more difficult than the last, culminating in a final flight that could carry the helicopter over 980 feet (300 meters) of Martian ground.

Even one short flight would be a major achievement.

“It will be truly a Wright Brothers moment, but on another planet,” MiMi Aung, project manager for the helicopter team, said in a briefing before the rover landed. “Every step going forward will be first of a kind.”

After Ingenuity finishes its flights, Perseverance will begin its main mission: driving across a former river delta and searching for signs of ancient alien microbes.

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