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NASA’s Ingenuity Will Perform Humanity’s First Wright Brothers Moment on Mars

The tiny helicopter remains safely tucked beneath the rover for now, but that won't be the case for long.

NASA’s Ingenuity Will Perform Humanity’s First Wright Brothers Moment on Mars
The debris shield that protected Ingenuity on the ground, the helicopter attached to the belly of Perseverance. NASA Media Briefing/YouTube

Ingenuity, a 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) helicopter that hitched a ride on NASA’s Perseverance rover, will attempt the first powered flight on Mars "no earlier than April 8," NASA announced Tuesday in a statement.

"When NASA's Sojourner rover landed on Mars in 1997, it proved that roving the Red Planet was possible and completely redefined our approach to how we explore Mars. Similarly, we want to learn about the potential Ingenuity has for the future of science research," said Lori Glaze, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division.

This will be the first attempt at the powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet. As of now, the $85 million Ingenuity remains safely tucked under the belly of NASA's Perseverance rover, which touched down on Mars on Feb. 18.

From flight tests in vacuum chambers to many more, Ingenuity was extensively tested on the ground; however, it is impossible to test everything about Mars' conditions on Earth, so this won't be easy. "Every step we have taken since this journey began six years ago has been uncharted territory in the history of aircraft," said Bob Balaram, Mars Helicopter chief engineer at JPL. "And while getting deployed to the surface will be a big challenge, surviving that first night on Mars alone, without the rover protecting it and keeping it powered, will be an even bigger one."

The roadmap for Ingenuity

In these next 10 days, Perseverance will perform a series of deployments to free Ingenuity and drop it on the surface. Afterward, Ingenuity will be on its own. Once its solar panel charges up its battery, it will be ready for its first flight.

At the right moment, Ingenuity will spread its 'wings', take off, and climb to an altitude of 10 feet (three meters). After hovering in place for 30 seconds, it will land, successfully completing its "Wright brothers moment" if all goes to plan.

Fittingly, Ingenuity is carrying a piece of history: a small piece of fabric that covered one of the wings of the Wright brothers' aircraft, known as the Flyer. The first powered, controlled flight on Earth took place when Flyer was flown 120 feet (36 meters) for 12 seconds in December 1903 by Orville and Wilbur Wright.

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"It’s the month of Ingenuity," said Bobby Braun, director for planetary science at JPL. "We also have a science mission to conduct, a very important science mission that’s going to gather the samples that will eventually come back to Earth as part of the Mars Sample Return campaign. So, that month is our window to conduct the technology demonstration experiment, and we’re confident that we can do so."

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