NASA Will Soon Have a Helicopter on Mars

NASA’s Perseverance explorer will land on the red planet on Feb. 18, but the rover won’t be the only newly arrived robotic explorer. The wheeled robot carries the Mars Helicopter Ingenuity on its belly, and NASA has posted a handy list of things to know about this mission. Although, several of the six facts seem to drive home that NASA doesn’t really know if Ingenuity is going to work. In fact, it could still be seen as a success at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory even if it crashes on its first flight. 

Here are the six things NASA thinks you need to know about Ingenuity before it touches down. 

  1. Ingenuity is an experimental flight test.
  2. Mars won’t make it easy for Ingenuity to attempt the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.
  3. Ingenuity relies on the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission for safe passage to Mars and for operations on the Red Planet’s surface.
  4. Ingenuity is smart for a small robot.
  5. The Ingenuity team counts success one step at a time.
  6. If Ingenuity succeeds, future Mars exploration could include an ambitious aerial dimension.

About half of this list appears to be about controlling expectations. NASA has done all the testing it can do on Earth, including simulating Mars pressure and gravity to ensure the tiny helicopter can generate sufficient lift. Mars has enough of an atmosphere that probes need heat-shielding for their descent, but there’s not enough that parachutes can slow something the size of Perseverance sufficiently for a soft landing. Ingenuity is designed to be light with oversized rotor blades to compensate. JPL engineers can’t say for certain it’ll work, though. 

NASA also stresses that Ingenuity is experimental. It uses mostly off-the-shelf hardware, and it relies on the Perseverance rover for communication and scouting. NASA is focusing on the small victories along the way for Ingenuity, from surviving the trip, to successfully deploying on the surface, to finally taking to the sky. 

Since Mars is so far away, there’s no way to control its flight in real-time. However, NASA stresses that Ingenuity has enough brains on board to make its own decisions. If this all comes together, and Ingenuity can give us an aerial view of Mars, it could change how future missions are designed. Perseverance can complete its mission even if Ingenuity bursts into flames on its first flight, but future Mars missions might rely on flying drones for important functions.

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