First Attempt to Fly A Helicopter on Mars in Early April

Stacy Adams

NASA will attempt at the beginning of April the first flight of a motorized vehicle on another planet by trying to take off the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, the US space agency announced on Tuesday. A first test which will take place only a few weeks after the arrival of the Perseverance rover on the Red Planet.

For now, this ultralight helicopter, which actually looks more like a large drone, is still folded up and strapped under the Perseverance rover, which landed on the Red Planet last month. “Our best guess at the moment is April 8,” said Bob Balaram, chief engineer of Ingenuity, at a press conference of the date of what will be the Mars equivalent of the first. flight of an aircraft on Earth, carried out by the Wright brothers in 1903. The exact day could still change, however, he said.

If the experiment is successful, it will be a real feat because the Martian air has a density equivalent to only 1% of that of the Earth’s atmosphere. The first flight is expected to be very simple: after taking off vertically, the helicopter will rise to an altitude of 3 meters, hover there for 30 seconds, then rotate on itself. before resting on the ground. It will receive its instructions from Earth a few hours before, but will analyze its position relative to the ground during the flight itself, taking 30 photos per second.

NASA has already determined the terrain over which the helicopter will fly, located north of the rover’s landing site. Perseverance has yet to finish taxiing to this runway, “which will take a few more days,” said Farah Alibay, in charge of NASA to liaise between the teams in charge of the vehicle and the helicopter.

The latter will then be placed in the correct position before being dropped to the ground, under the rover, which will then have to roll over it to get away from it. Perseverance will absolutely have to clear his sight in less than 25 hours because the helicopter will need the sun to supply its solar panels with energy, and thus be able to survive by warming itself during the frosty Martian nights.

The rover will then be placed from an observation point in order to capture the prowess of Ingenuity with its cameras. Up to five flights of gradual difficulty are planned, spread over a month. Composed of four feet, a body and two superimposed propellers, Ingenuity weighs only 1.8 kg and measures 1.2 m from one end of a blade to the other. The program for this helicopter cost NASA around $ 85 million. In the future, such machines could prove to be crucial for the exploration of planets, being able to go where rovers cannot go, for example over canyons.

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