First ‘space helicopter’ set to take to Martian skies

NBC News

When NASA’s Perseverance rover touches down next week, it will carry one of the strangest devices ever seen on Mars — a drone destined to make the first controlled flights on an extraterrestrial planet.

Dubbed “Ingenuity,” the drone weighs just 4 pounds, and it will stay stored beneath the rover’s belly while Perseverance runs through its initial surface checks and experiments.

But about the middle of April, the rover will scout out a flat area without large rocks to deploy the drone, and soon after that Perseverance will release Ingenuity to make the first flights on Mars.

“It’s pretty unique in that it’s a helicopter that can fly around,” said Tim Canham, the operations lead for the Ingenuity project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

“There was a balloon mission on Venus years ago, so we can’t claim to be the first aircraft,” he said, referring to the two Soviet Vega space probes that deployed balloons attached to scientific instruments in the clouds on Venus in 1985. “But we can claim we’re the first powered aircraft outside Earth.”

Canham will coordinate the five test flights scheduled for the Ingenuity drone over 30 days, with each at least three days apart.

“The first flight will be very basic – it will just go straight up, hover and go straight down,” he said. “After that, we’ll do a couple of flights where we go horizontally, to test how it works.”

The car-size Perseverance rover has seven complex scientific instruments, so it can take panoramic video, monitor the weather, perform ultraviolet and X-ray spectroscopy on anything it finds, and look for signs of ancient microbial life.

But, Ingenuity will carry out no science on its test flights. It will only take photographs of the Martian terrain with its two cameras, one facing forward and one down.

Instead, the Ingenuity project is designed to show drones can be an important addition to the ongoing explorations of distant planets, Canham said.

“Our job is really to prove that the aerodynamics, as we’ve tested them here, work also on Mars,” he said.

Mars is a hard place to fly, which is why Ingenuity weighs so little and needs two counter-rotating 4-foot-long helicopter rotors to stay aloft.

Perseverance, nicknamed Percy, is a car-sized Mars rover designed to explore the Jezero crater on Mars as part of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission. It was manufactured by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and was launched on 30 July 2020, at 7:50 a.m. EDT (11:50 UTC), and is scheduled to land on Mars on 18 February 2021, 3 p.m EST/8 p.m UTC.

Perseverance carries seven scientific instruments to study the Martian surface at Jezero crater. It carries several cameras and two microphones.

Technical details
Length 2 m (6 ft 7 in)
Diameter 2.7 m (8 ft 10 in)
Height 2.2 m (7 ft 3 in)
Launch mass 1,025 kg (2,260 lb)
Power 110 W (0.15 hp)

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