NASA's Mars Ingenuity Helicopter Set to Fly for First Time—Here Are the Obstacles It Faces

NASA's Ingenuity helicopter is preparing for its maiden voyage on Mars next month, in what the space agency hopes will be the first ever demonstration of powered, controlled flight on another planet.

But what obstacles does the experimental vehicle need to overcome in order to achieve this historic feat?

Currently, the helicopter is attached to the belly of NASA's Perseverance rover, although the carbon-fiber shield that protected the aircraft during descent and landing has detached, exposing Ingenuity to the elements.

NASA is aiming to conduct Ingenuity's first test flight no earlier than April 8. But first, the rover needs to arrive safely at the fight zone area—a 33-by-33-foot patch of Martian terrain that was chosen for its flatness and lack of notable obstructions. Here, Ingenuity will have a window of 30 Martian days, or sols—equivalent to around 31 Earth days—to conduct its test flight campaign.

Before it begins flying, Ingenuity must be located directly in the middle of this flight zone. Once the NASA team has confirmed its location, the deployment process will begin.

"As with everything with the helicopter, this type of deployment has never been done before," Farah Alibay, Mars Helicopter integration lead for the Perseverance rover, said in a statement. "Once we start the deployment there is no turning back."

"All activities are closely coordinated, irreversible, and dependent on each other. If there is even a hint that something isn't going as expected, we may decide to hold off for a sol or more until we have a better idea what is going on."

In total, the deployment process will take about six sols, as the helicopter incrementally unfolds into its flight configuration. Each step of this deployment process will have to run smoothly.

By the fifth sol of deployment, the helicopter will be hanging from the bottom of the rover, suspended about five inches above the Martian surface. At that point, it will be connected to the rover only via a single bolt and a couple of dozen tiny electrical contacts.

Bob Balaram, Mars Helicopter chief engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California—which built and manages the aircraft—said in a statement: "Once we cut the cord with Perseverance and drop those final five inches to the surface, we want to have our big friend drive away as quickly as possible so we can get the sun's rays on our solar panel and begin recharging our batteries."

On the sixth day of deployment, operators will have to check that the helicopter's four legs are placed firmly on the Martian surface. The team will also have to ensure that the rover is around 16 feet away from Ingenuity, and that both vehicles are communicating via their onboard radios. Once all these milestones have been passed, the 30-sol test flight window will begin, in which time all other preflight checks will be completed.

Even if the helicopter successfully reaches this stage, there is no guarantee it will be able to achieve its test flight goals. Controlled flight on Mars is much more challenging than it is on Earth. The red planet's atmosphere is only around one percent as dense as Earth's at the surface. Meanwhile, the planet still has significant gravity, albeit only around one-third that of Earth's.

In order to function in these conditions, NASA has designed Ingenuity to be very light, with blades that spin extremely fast. 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.

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

Engineers also had to equip the helicopter with internal heaters that are designed to maintain operational temperatures during the cold Martian nights, which reach temperatures as low as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit in the 28-mile-wide Jezero Crater where Perseverance landed.

"Every step we have taken since this journey began six years ago has been uncharted territory in the history of aircraft," Balaram said. "And while getting deployed to the surface will be a big challenge, surviving that first night on Mars alone, without the rover protecting it and keeping it powered, will be an even bigger one."

NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter flying on Mars
An illustration of NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter flying on Mars. NASA/JPL-Caltech