NASA’s Mars Helicopter Flight Delayed, Team Talks Technology on the Red Planet | IGN

The first flight of NASA’s Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, has been delayed to April 11 to give the team and the aircraft more time for preparation.

Originally scheduled to fly on April 8, NASA delayed the flight of its first and only Martian helicopter to give the Ingenuity team back on Earth more time to characterize the helicopter’s energy story. The extra time is also just a matter of caution as well, as the team is being “extremely careful” with every step they make in the process.

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NASA Working on Ingenuity Helicopter, Photo Credit: NASA

The helicopter, which weighs about four pounds with a wingspan of 1.2 meters, is powered by batteries that are charged through solar panels on its top side and at a full battery, the helicopter can fly for about 90 seconds, according to NASA. It must then land safely and charge enough of its battery again to power the heater on-board as this protects the helicopter from the Red Planet’s cold nights.

Ingenuity’s flight delay on Mars

The extra three days give the Ingenuity team the time it needs to get a better read on what that power cycle looks like and more importantly, ensure that’s its energy is positive throughout all steps of the process. The helicopter’s first flight will occur on a full battery and it will only fly a couple of meters up during that first flight before returning to the surface of Mars. It won’t go any higher than about 15 feet, according to NASA.

“This next step (flying for the first time) is huge,” Mars helicopter operations lead, Tim Canham, said during an Ingenuity Q&A held today. “Can it go up and hover and land safely? That will be a major moment of triumph for the helicopter team.”

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That’s currently scheduled for April 11, although an official time has not been announced. The flight will not be live-streamed, however. People back on Earth won’t see anything of the flight until the telemetry of the flight is retrieved, which will take a couple of sols – or Martian days – which are about 40 minutes longer than days on Earth. NASA said the Perseverance rover, which is the rover that recently landed on Mars and carried Ingenuity to the planet with it, will be watching the flight from about 65 meters away. It will take photos that will eventually make it to Earth, but that could take some time as well.

Why NASA’s Ingenuity flight is such a big deal

What makes this first flight such a milestone for NASA, beyond it being the first flight of a helicopter on Mars, is that it’s powered completely by pre-programmed sequences. There are no joysticks involved nor is the helicopter remote-controlled.

“The sequences (of flight) were prebuilt by the team on the ground,” Perseverance operations engineer, Elio Morillo, said during the NASA Q&A. “These sequences have been tested over the years, (but) they’re pre-canned. We do not have real-time control of the helicopter. It’s completely autonomous.”

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This posed a lot of challenges for the Ingenuity team. What happens if there’s a Martian wind gust that happens during a flight? The helicopter has sensors that can detect those wind gusts and correct its course accordingly. For the most part, though, the prebuilt flight sequences have been tested over and over again in chambers that simulate what Ingenuity is experiencing on Mars.

The Perseverance will watch Ingenuity’s first flight roughly 65 meters away from the helicopter on the Van Zyl Overlook. It will take images and the team is currently determining if the rover will be able to record sound. It has a directional mic on-board, but the team isn’t sure if, due to the distance, it will be able to pick up sound from the helicopter.

Perseverance integration lead, Farah Alibay, said it’s important to remember that Mars’ atmosphere, which is 1% the density of Earth’s atmosphere, is quite different from our planet and as a result, sound travels differently on it.

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NASA Ingenuity Milestone List, Photo Credit: NASA

After the first flight, Perseverance and Ingenuity will go their separate ways. Ingenuity will begin to charge and prepare for its next flight and Perseverance will return to its original mission: collecting samples of Mars to be sent back to Earth during a later mission. The two vehicles will still communicate by way of radio, though. The base team will talk to Perseverance and Perseverance will relay the messages to Ingenuity. The helicopter will respond to the Perseverance and the rover will pass the message along to Earth.

Ingenuity’s main mission on Mars

As far as the bigger picture for Ingenuity goes, its mission is to serve as a technology demonstration.

“Ingenuity is a test vehicle for Mars,” Canham said. “It will take super-detailed logs…500 times a second…(for us) to see what happened and characterize flying on Mars. An apt analogy is the Mars Pathfinder and Sojourner — to try something never been done before and learn a ton from it…for future engineers and scientists to make bigger and better helicopters for Mars.”

While waiting for Ingenuity’s first flight on Mars next week, check out this story about the Perseverance’s successful landing on Mars in February and then check out this video of the rover’s touchdown. Read this story about the first sights and sounds captured by Perseverance after that and then check out this story about a hidden message on the rover’s parachute.

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Wesley LeBlanc is a freelance news writer, guide maker, and science guru for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter @LeBlancWes
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