The first powered flights on Mars could be just a few weeks away.
The teams behind NASA’s Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter have chosen an airfield on the Red Planet for the 4-lb. (1.8 kilograms) helicopter and are preparing for flights in the near future.
“Ingenuity test flights are not expected to begin before the first week of April,” NASA officials wrote in a mission update on Wednesday (March 17). “The exact timing of the first flight will remain fluid as engineers work out details about the timeline for Perseverance and Ingenuity’s vehicle positioning and deployments.”
Related: NASA’s Mars Helicopter Ingenuity Explained
NASA will give an update on the Ingenuity flight plan during a press conference next Tuesday (March 23) at 1:30 pm EDT (1730 GMT). You can see it live here on Space.com, courtesy of NASA, or directly through the space agency.
The device is still hidden in the belly of Perseverance, which landed within the 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer) Jezero crater of the Red Planet on February 18. After Perseverance reaches your chosen airfield, you will deploy Ingenuity on the red earth and drive about 100 meters (330 feet) away. The six-wheeled rover will attempt to document the small helicopter’s flights using its Mastcam-Z suite of cameras and two microphones, members of the mission team said.
The device carries a high-resolution camera but no scientific instruments; is a technology demonstration designed to help pave the way for future aerial exploration of Mars. If Ingenuity flights are successful, future Red Planet missions could commonly include helicopters, serving as rover explorers and / or collecting data on their own, NASA officials said.
After helping Ingenuity take off, Perseverance will begin to seriously focus on his main mission. The rover will search for signs of ancient life on Mars and collect dozens of samples, which a joint mission campaign by NASA and the European Space Agency will bring home to Earth, perhaps as early as 2031.
Ingenuity is not the only technological demonstration that perseverance brought to Mars. One of the rover’s science instruments, called MOXIE (“Mars In Situ Oxygen Resource Utilization Experiment”), is designed to generate pure oxygen from the Red Planet’s thin, carbon dioxide-dominated atmosphere. Such a team, if expanded, could help humanity settle on Mars, NASA officials have said.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out there“(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book on the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.