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NASA aims for historic helicopter flight on Mars

NASA hopes to make history early Monday when the Ingenuity Mars helicopter attempts the first powered, controlled flight to another planet.

The space agency originally scheduled the flight for April 11, but postponed it due to a software glitch identified during a scheduled high-speed test of the aircraft’s rotors.

The issue has since been resolved and the four-pound (1.8 kilogram) drone could achieve its feat around 3:30 a.m. Eastern Time (7:30 a.m. GMT).

However, the data won’t arrive until several hours later, and NASA will begin a live broadcast at 6:15 a.m. (10:15 a.m. GMT).

“Each world has only one first flight,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager, before the first attempt.

The first powered flight on Earth was performed by the Wright brothers in 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. A piece of fabric from this aircraft has been hidden inside Ingenuity in honor of this feat.

The helicopter flew to Mars attached to the underside of the Perseverance rover, which landed on the planet on February 18 as part of a mission to search for signs of alien life.

Ingenuity’s goal, on the other hand, is to demonstrate that its technology works, and it will not contribute to the science goals of Perseverance.

But it is hoped that ingenuity can pave the way for future flyers that will revolutionize our exploration of celestial bodies, as they can reach areas that rovers cannot cover and travel much faster.

The timing of the helicopter flight is chosen taking into account the weather on Mars. The wind is the great unknown and could jeopardize the mission.

Flight is difficult because the air on Mars is so thin – less than one percent of the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere.

This makes it much more difficult to obtain lift, although it will be in part aided by a gravitational pull which is a third of that of Earth.

High resolution videos

The helicopter will rise for approximately six seconds, hover and spin for approximately 30 seconds, then descend.
The flight will be autonomous, pre-programmed on the plane due to the 15 minutes it takes for signals to travel from Earth to Mars.

Ingenuity itself will analyze its position relative to the Martian surface.

After the flight, Ingenuity will send technical data to Perseverance on what it did, and that information will be relayed back to Earth.

This will include a black and white photo of the Martian surface that Ingenuity is programmed to take in flight.

Later, once its batteries are recharged, Ingenuity will transmit another photo – in color, of the Martian horizon, taken with a different camera.

But the most spectacular footage is supposed to come from the Perseverance rover, which will film the flight a few meters away.

Shortly after this shoot, six videos of 2.5 seconds each will be sent to Earth. NASA is hoping that at least one of them will show the helicopter in flight.

The full video will be sent over the next few days.

“There will be surprises, and you’ll learn about them at the same time as we do. So let’s all grab the popcorn,” said Elsa Jensen, who oversees the cameras on the rover.

High risk

Four outcomes are possible, Aung said: full success, partial success, insufficient or no data, or failure.

If the flight is successful, NASA plans another no more than four days later. It provides for up to five in total, each successively more difficult, over the course of a month.

NASA hopes to raise the helicopter five meters (16 feet) and then move sideways.

“The lifespan of ingenuity will be determined by how it lands,” Aung said – that is, if it crashes.

“Once we get to the fourth and fifth flights, we’ll have fun,” she said. “We are going to take very daring flights and take high risks.”

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