Mars helicopter flight test promises Wright Brothers moment for NASA

NASA attempts to send a miniature helicopter on Monday (April 19) buzzing over the surface of Mars in what would be the first powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet. A modest debut like Wright Brothers’ first controlled flight in the world, is in store for NASA’s twin-rotor, solar-powered helicopter Ingenuity.

If all goes to plan, the 1.8kg whirligig will slowly ascend straight up to an altitude of 3 metres above the Martian surface, hover in place for 30 seconds, then rotate before descending to a gentle landing on all four legs. While the mere metrics might seem less than ambitious, the “air field” for the interplanetary test flight is 278 million km from Earth, on the floor of a vast Martian basin called Jezero Crater. Success hinges on Ingenuity executing the pre-programmed flight instructions using an autonomous pilot and navigation system. Although Ingenuity’s flight test is set to begin around 3:30am Eastern Time on Monday (3:30pm Singapore time), data confirming its outcome is not expected to reach JPL’s mission control until around 6:15am ET on Monday. NASA also expects to receive images and video of the flight that mission engineers hope to capture using cameras mounted on the helicopter and the Perseverance rover, which will be parked 76 meters away from Ingenuity’s flight zone as reported by Reuters.