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

Mars helicopter ingenuity nasaNASA/JPL-CaltechAn artist’s concept of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter flying.

Update: The Ingenuity helicopter successfully lifted off from Mars, flew 3.05m high, and landed safely on Monday. Read more in our story on the first-ever Mars flight.

NASA is about to find out whether its Mars helicopter successfully flew its first flight – a feat that could revolutionize spaceflight.

The helicopter, called Ingenuity, traveled nearly 300 million miles to the red planet tucked inside the belly of the Perseverance rover. Early Monday, around 3:30 a.m. ET, the space drone attempted to fly over an airfield in Mars’ Jezero Crater. If it was successful, that would be the first controlled powered flight ever conducted on another planet.

NASA is about to find out what happened. The agency expects to receive data from the helicopter around 6:15 a.m. ET.

NASA Perseverance NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Seán DoranPerseverance took a selfie with Ingenuity on April 6.

You can see what happened to the helicopter as NASA learns it via a livestream from mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California (embedded below). On the live feed, mission controllers may even receive the first in-flight photos from the helicopter.

For Ingenuity’s first flight, it should have risen about 3.05m off the ground, hovered there, then gently touched back down. The helicopter must conduct the entire flight autonomously. If all has gone 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.

Mars helicopter ingenuity nasa gifNASA/JPL-Caltech

It takes at least eight minutes for a signal from Mars to travel to Earth, and vice versa. For Ingenuity, the delay is even longer as it must route its communications through the Perseverance rover. So the engineers and technicians who run Ingenuity can only bite their nails and wait for the signal that the helicopter has flown and landed.

“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 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.

NASA’s livestream, below, will begin at 6:15 a.m. ET on Monday, showing the agency’s Space Flight Operations Facility as it receives data and possibly imagery from Ingenuity’s flight. 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.

Mars Perseverance Selfie 2x1NASA/JPL-CaltechA Perseverance ‘selfie’ showcases cameras on the remote-sensing mast at the end of the rover’s robotic arm.

Monday’s test flight was originally scheduled for April 12, but NASA delayed it after a crucial spin test ended abruptly. That test involved spinning the helicopter’s 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 – to lift the 2kg drone. That’s necessary because Martian air has just 1% the density of Earth’s atmosphere.

But the spin-test ended when the helicopter failed to transition its flight computer from “pre-flight” to “flight” mode. Ingenuity’s engineers have since fixed the problem by tweaking the helicopter’s flight-control software. Ingenuity re-did its full-speed spin test on Friday, and the blades performed as they should during flight.

This could be the first of 5 flights

Ingenuity helicopter marsNASA/JPL-CaltechNASA’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 3.05m 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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