NASA Mars Helicopter in Belly of Probe Will Be a 'Wright Brothers Moment' for Flight

NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover is on its way to the red planet after a successful launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, this afternoon. Tucked beneath its belly is a very special vehicle: a Mars Helicopter.

Dubbed "Ingenuity," the unique vehicle is a small, autonomous aircraft that will be deployed on the Martian surface by the rover after it arrives at its destination in February 2021.

Ingenuity's mission is not linked to the rover's, which will look for signs of ancient microbial life on Mars and collect samples of rock and sediment for potential return to Earth in future missions.

Instead, the helicopter is solely a demonstration of technology and the viability of controlled, powered flight in the thin atmosphere of Mars.

"The Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity, is the first rotorcraft to fly at mars," Perseverance engineer Nagin Cox from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California—where the rover was built—told Newsweek. "It will be the first time that we have flown a powered aircraft outside our atmosphere—making it a 'Wright Brothers' moment. Everything this helicopter does will be a first-time event."

Ingenuity is currently hitching a ride on Perseverance's belly, covered by a shield to protect the vehicle during the rover's descent and landing. Once the rover has touched down in the 28-mile-wide Jezero Crater, the shield will drop and operators will slowly lower the helicopter to the Martian surface.

After deployment on the surface, the rover will move away and engineers will perform a series of checks before Ingenuity conducts its very first flight—hovering in the air for about 20-30 seconds—and landing. If all goes to plan, this will be the very first powered flight in the extremely thin Martian atmosphere, which is less than one percent as dense as Earth's.

Following this first successful test, Ingenuity will then conduct a series of experimental flights over a 30-day period, in which the helicopter will incrementally increase the distances it travels and the heights it reaches.

During these flights, the vehicle will fly for up to 90 seconds at a time, covering distances of almost 980 feet, all while hovering no more than 15 feet above the Martian surface.

NASA Mars Helicopter
In this artist's concept, NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter stands on the Red Planet's surface as NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover (partially visible on the left) rolls away. NASA/JPL-Caltech

While these may not sound like impressive figures, remember that the Wright Brothers' pioneering flight in 1903—the first self-propelled, heavier-than-air flight in history—lasted just 12 seconds.

Furthermore, flying in the Martian atmosphere is particularly challenging, even though its gravity is only around a third that of Earth's. To function in these conditions, any Mars helicopter has to be very light and have blades that spin very fast. As a result, Ingenuity weighs less than four pounds and its two, four-foot-long blades spin in the range of 2,300-2,900 revolutions per minute.

"This is approximately 10 times faster than the helicopters operating on Earth," MiMi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, previously told Newsweek.

To ensure that the helicopter is light enough to fly on Mars, NASA engineers miniaturized Ingenuity's onboard computers, electronics and other parts.

Aside from demonstrating the viability of powered flight on Mars, another key objective for the Ingenuity mission is to demonstrate that the vehicle can operate autonomously, performing test flights—including take-offs and landings—without real-time human control from operators (not counting initial commands to start flying).

The helicopter uses solar power to recharge its batteries and features internal heaters that maintain operational temperatures during the cold Martian nights, which reach temperatures as low as minus 130 F in Jezero Crater.

If Ingenuity is successful in demonstrating powered flight on Mars, the mission could pave the way for future helicopters to be deployed on the red planet, and indeed other worlds. Such vehicles could carry out support roles, acting as scouts for future rovers and, eventually, astronauts.

Cox said there have been several moments when NASA's Curiosity rover, which is currently operational on the Martian surface, would have benefited from the presence of a helicopter scout.

"Curiosity has definitely encountered times in her journey where it would have been very helpful to 'see around the corner' and this helicopter experiment is the first step in that kind of 'scouting' ability," Cox said. "It adds an aerial dimension to space exploration."

Furthermore, such helicopters could act as scientific instruments themselves, venturing into difficult-to-access areas where rovers cannot reach.