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NASA is set to fly its helicopter to Mars for the first time – a feat that could revolutionize spaceflight.
The helicopter, called Ingenuity, traveled nearly 300 million kilometers to the red planet nestled in the belly of the Perseverance rover. Now he’s sitting in an airfield in Mars’ Jezero Crater, where he’s about to perform the first controlled powered flight ever to another planet.
Ingenuity is expected to perform this flight autonomously early Monday, and NASA expects to receive data from the helicopter around 6:15 a.m. ET. It is then that the agency will know if the test flight was successful.
You can see what happened to the helicopter as NASA learns about it via a live feed from mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. (Embedded below). On the live stream, mission controllers can even receive the helicopter’s first in-flight photos.
On Ingenuity’s first flight, it should rise about 10 feet off the ground, hover there, then slowly come back down. The helicopter must complete the entire flight autonomously. If all goes well, Ingenuity will then attempt up to four more flight escapades over a 30-day period. Each of these flights would be more and more difficult, the drone venturing further and further away each time.
Because it takes at least eight minutes for a signal from Mars to travel to Earth, and vice versa, 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 nervous,” Josh Ravich, mechanical manager of 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 moment to come back.”
Watch NASA fly its helicopter to Mars live
Ingenuity is a demonstration intended to test NASA’s rotorcraft technology on another planet. So beyond flying and capturing photos and videos from the air, it won’t do any science. But ingenuity could pave the way for future alien 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 could be inaccessible to rovers.
The NASA TV live stream, below, will begin at 6:15 a.m. (ET) Monday, showing the agency’s space flight operations center as it receives data and possibly footage from the flight of ‘Ingenuity. This is where engineers like Ravich will eagerly wait to hear from the helicopter.
“By its nature there will be a bit more risk than a normal mission,” Ravich said. “There are a lot of things that could go wrong.”
Ingenuity will already have attempted to fly about three hours earlier, at 3:30 a.m.ET. You won’t be able to watch the flight in real time – NASA cannot live stream from another planet – but video of the flight and flight will likely be available soon after. The helicopter is configured to record the ground below it using two cameras on its stomach (one in black and white for navigation and one in color). Perseverance, meanwhile, should save the flight from a nearby lookout.
It is not yet clear how long it will take to bring this video back to Earth and for NASA to release it. Perseverance returned full video footage of its landing within three days.
Monday’s test flight was originally scheduled for April 12, but NASA delayed it after the abrupt end of a crucial rotational test. This test involved spinning the helicopter’s carbon fiber blades at full speed on the ground. The two pairs of blades must rotate in opposite directions at about 2,500 rpm – about eight times faster than a passenger helicopter on Earth – to lift the 4-pound drone. This is necessary because Martian air has only 1% of the density of the Earth’s atmosphere.
But the spin test ended when the helicopter failed to switch its flight computer from “pre-flight” mode to “flight” mode. Ingenuity engineers have since fixed the problem by tweaking the helicopter’s flight control software. Ingenuity went through its full-speed spin test again on Friday, and the blades performed as they should during flight.
This could be the first of 5 flights
If all goes as NASA hopes, Ingenuity’s fifth and final flight will transport the helicopter over 300 meters (980 feet) of Martian land.
“Each of these will probably be, you know, a pretty tense and exciting experience,” Ravich said.
But even if Ingenuity only completes that first 10 foot hover, it will be a major achievement.
“It will truly be a moment for the Wright brothers but on another planet,” MiMi Aung, the helicopter team’s project leader, said during a briefing before the rover lands. “Each step forward will be the first of a kind.”
This post has been updated with new information. It was originally published on Friday, April 9, 2021.
Read the original article on Business Insider