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NASA's Mars helicopter may fly as early as April 8

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A NASA illustration shows the Mars helicopter Ingenuity on the surface of the Red Planet after it is dropped from the Perseverance rover, which NASA plans to do in early April. Image courtesy of NASA
A NASA illustration shows the Mars helicopter Ingenuity on the surface of the Red Planet after it is dropped from the Perseverance rover, which NASA plans to do in early April. Image courtesy of NASA

ORLANDO, Fla., March 23 (UPI) -- NASA plans to fly its Mars helicopter Ingenuity on the Red Planet -- the first powered aircraft flight on another planet -- as early as April 8, space agency officials said Tuesday.

But first, the helicopter must detach from the bottom of the rover Perseverance in Jezero Crater, where the robotic explorer landed Feb. 18, mission controllers said at a media briefing at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

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When it flies, the helicopter will start with short hops to test its capabilities in the thin Martian air, said Håvard Grip, NASA's chief pilot for Ingenuity.

"The first three flights ... will be demonstrating basic capability to hover, and then you go longer distances," Grip said Tuesday.

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"If everything goes really well, then we might try to stretch our capabilities beyond those basics ... but we haven't planned that in detail at this point," he said.

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The solar-powered aircraft, which weighs just 4 pounds, will attempt flights about 15 feet high in a flat part of the crater's floor that is about 300 feet across. The rover will move about 200 feet away from the helicopter to take photos of it in flight, Grip said.

NASA's plan includes five flights over about 31 Earth days. That schedule could change, but Ingenuity is purely an experimental craft and isn't designed to last for long in the cold, harsh Martian environment.

During its short lifespan, Ingenuity will transmit images and data to the rover, which will beam them back to Earth.

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"It takes images on the ground below at a rate of 30 images per second, and analyzes those to track the features on the ground, to see how it is moving, Grip said.

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Ingenuity's systems can make adjustments hundreds of times per second, to stay on its planned route and "to fight off disturbances, like wind," he said.

If Ingenuity is successful, NASA could add more helicopter flights in the future, said Bobby Braun, director of planetary science the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

He said he expects that Ingenuity will open up new mission possibilities similar to the way that the tiny Sojourner rover did when it operated successfully on Mars in 1997.

"It's quite possible that we could have a similar evolution here, where future autonomous aerial systems could come into play," Braun said.

"What we'd like to do within NASA is to provide competitive opportunities to our community," said Lori Glaze, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division. "We would hope that the community will ... start thinking about aerial platforms as a potential way to really expand our Mars exploration."

Future missions could use aerial drones for reconnaissance purposes, taking pictures to scout out areas, potential targets for future rovers, or even future astronauts on Mars, Glaze said.

Over the next two weeks, Ingenuity must unfold itself, drop from Perseverance and charge its batteries.

"The most stressful day at least for me, is going to be that last day while we finally separate the helicopter and drop ingenuity on the ground, said Farah Alibay, the space agency's Perseverance integration lead for Ingenuity.

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"We actually have to drive away from it within 25 hours, because ... the helicopter needs sun on its solar panels to charge its batteries, and they can only survive one Martian night without that," she said.

Exploration of Mars through history

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used two different cameras to create this panoramic selfie, comprised of 60 images, in front of Mont Mercou, a rock outcrop that stands 20 feet tall on March 26, 2021, the 3,070th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. These were combined with 11 images taken by the Mastcam on the mast, or "head," of the rover on March 16. The hole visible to the left of the rover is where its robotic drill sampled a rock nicknamed "Nontron." The Curiosity team is nicknaming features in this part of Mars using names from the region around the village of Nontron in southwestern France. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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