Kitty Hawk is the place where, in 1903, the Wright brothers found a suitable field of level ground from which to make the world’s first airplane flight.
Perseverance’s patch of level ground is on Mars and is where, perhaps in the next three weeks, it will deploy the world’s first extraterrestrial helicopter.
Named Ingenuity, the helicopter is 1.8 kilograms of high-tech rotors, spindly legs, and solar panels, currently tucked safely in the belly of the Perseverance rover.
Although it carries a camera, it is not a science experiment. Rather, it’s a proof of concept, designed to pave the way to bigger and better things, much as NASA’s 1997 Sojourner rover – which weighed only 11.5 kg and traveled only 100 metres – led to the Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity missions, and now to Perseverance itself.
“It’s the next in experimental aircraft, dating all the way back to the Wright brothers,” says Bob Balaram of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, who is the helicopter’s chief engineer. In honour of that, he adds, it even carries a tiny piece of fabric from the Wright brother’s original aircraft.
It has, of course, been extensively tested on Earth, including in a 25-foot (8 metre) chamber designed to simulate the thin Martian atmosphere.
But flying in the lab is one thing. Flying on Mars is another. The biggest challenge, says Balaram, is that the Martian atmosphere has its own dynamics, complete with wind gusts, dust, and other unpredictable events. (Not to mention that the gravity on Mars is only 38% that on Earth.)
As much of that as possible has been tested, Balaram says, “but there’s nothing that beats being in the environment of Mars”.
From the moment Perseverance touched down on 18 February, one of the flight crew’s top priorities was finding a suitable “airfield” for the helicopter.
But it turned out to be an easy quest, says Håvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot.
After looking through satellite images and photos taken by the rover during its descent, he says, “we began to realise that we might just have a truly great airfield right in front of our noses”.
The rover’s search for a safe landing spot on its descent had put it in the perfect place for Ingenuity’s test flight.
Not that the helicopter is set to fly tomorrow. First, the rover needs to drive to the middle of the airfield, conduct about 10 days of tests, carefully lower the helicopter to the ground, and then, without wasting too much time checking things out, back away from it (without running over it in the process), thereby allowing the helicopter’s solar panels to see the light.
“It needs sun and can only survive one Martian night without that,” says Farah Alibay, the systems engineer in charge of the process.
There will then be another week or so of testing, at which point the rover will drive to a low mound from which to observe.
Only then will the helicopter attempt to take off.
That initial flight, says Grip, won’t be anything like the loops and rolls conducted by drone pilots in your local park. Rather, the helicopter will rise 3m above the surface, hover for 30 seconds, rotate while hovering, and descend.
“We will declare complete mission success if we do this,” Grip says.
If that works, however, the helicopter has more tricks up its sleeve. Next up would be a short back-and-forth traverse (all within the safety of the airstrip zone), and if that works, it might even go on a more adventurous expedition, though at the moment, everything is focused on the first two flights.
When will all of this occur? Nobody’s making promises, but Balaram says it might come as soon as 8 April…or even a few days earlier.
“April feels to me like the month of Ingenuity,” says Bobby Braun, JPL’s director for planetary science.
Richard A Lovett
Richard A Lovett is a Portland, Oregon-based science writer and science fiction author. He is a frequent contributor to Cosmos.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.