In a ruined crater on Mars, a tiny helicopter with a smartphone brain is now days away from attempting the first powered flight on another world. NASA hopes its lanky robot helicopter, named Ingenuity, will demonstrate that powered flight is possible in dangerously thin Martian air and help usher in a new era of planetary exploration in which drones play a vital role.
The device arrived at Mars as a stowaway, bent on the underside of NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed on the red planet in February after a seven-month, 293-million-mile journey from Earth. For its maiden flight, the 4-pound, $ 85 million craft will simply rise about 10 feet above the surface and float, no higher than the edge of a regulation basketball hoop, before returning to the surface. The entire flight should finish in 90 seconds.
The short excursion, one of five planned for a month-long period expected to begin on or about April 11, is a short jump as measured by interplanetary travel. But agency officials said it would be a big step for exploring Mars. In the future, they said, autonomous drones like Ingenuity could fly into the skies to explore canyons, ice caps and other terrain inaccessible to rovers. If human explorers were to land on Mars, drones could serve as aerial explorers and sensors.
“We hope that Ingenuity will allow us to expand and open up air mobility on Mars,” said Bob Balaram, chief project engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
The engine’s flight, part of a larger mission to search for signs of past life on the red planet, is the latest in a series of notable Mars moments this year.