The agency provided updates on milestones met—and a glimpse at what’s to come.
NASA’s four-pound space helicopter—Ingenuity—is gearing up to attempt the first-ever powered and controlled aircraft flight on a planet that is not Earth.
The little chopper started to complete what officials deemed to be some major milestones in the early days of April, after hitching a 293 million-mile ride to Mars on the space agency’s Perseverance Rover in late February.
“Our goal, plain and simple, is to prove that we can fly on Mars,” Teddy Tzanetos, deputy operations lead for the Ingenuity Mars helicopter said during a Q&A NASA hosted Monday. “Once we do that, we hope that this is going to blow the doors open for the future of martian exploration—unlocking that aerial dimension we think is going to be extremely exciting for humanity and for scientists within NASA and the larger exploration community.”
Built by officials within NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory with support from other directorates, the helicopter is ultimately meant to conduct experimental flight tests to explore what’s possible on the red planet. It will not be carrying any science instruments onboard or roaming around investigating for signs of life like the Perseverance rover is set to do. With Ingenuity, NASA aims to demonstrate rotorcraft flights in the extremely thin Martian atmosphere.
Possible applications down the line could include new views or access to terrain that isn’t so easy for rovers to move across.
But a variety of complex steps must be met to get to the point—and over the last few days, they’ve started to unfold. Ingenuity had been stored up, keeping warm in the Perseverance rover’s belly compartment since the two landed on the planet earlier this year. NASA confirmed the chopper on Saturday captured its first color photo from Mars, shortly after being dropped from the rover that ferried it there. And in another highly anticipated event, the helicopter also survived its first night on the Martian surface—quite a feat in evening temperatures that can plunge as low as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit, the space agency noted. This confirmed that the right insulation, heaters and energy were used to ensure the smart copter could survive the frigid nights.
“That was one of the huge, huge achievements that we've been looking forward to,” Tzanetos said. "Being able to drop under our own energy, sustain ourselves—keep ourselves warm throughout the night—and then wake up and talk with Perseverance and say, ‘Yep, we're here. We're alive and healthy.’ The team couldn't be happier.”
Next up, restraints that have been holding the rotor blades together since before launch are set to be released. That should come Wednesday—and then, after an array of other preflight checks, the helicopter will be ready for takeoff. NASA’s release noted that that first flight will likely come no sooner than April 11.
“We really think this is going to be that kind of breakthrough moment for us to try out new ways to explore Mars,” Tzanetos said.