NASA sets the date for first helicopter flight on another planet – and the craft will carry a piece of history

Fabric from Wright brothers' aircraft makes it to Mars


Ingenuity, NASA’s dual-rotor drone right now strapped to the belly of the Perseverance rover on Mars, is set to perform humankind's first-ever powered aircraft flight on another planet within the coming weeks.

And during this historic trip, fingers crossed, the solar-powered helicopter gizmo will aptly enough carry with it a small piece of history: a patch of material taken from the Wright Flyer, the plane flown by the Wright brothers in 1903.

“When NASA’s Sojourner rover landed on Mars in 1997, it proved that roving the Red Planet was possible and completely redefined our approach to how we explore Mars,” said Lori Glaze, director of the NASA’s Planetary Science Division, on Wednesday.

“Similarly, we want to learn about the potential Ingenuity has for the future of science research. Aptly named, Ingenuity is a technology demonstration that aims to be the first powered flight on another world and, if successful, could further expand our horizons and broaden the scope of what is possible with Mars exploration.”

Mars is a difficult environment to fly in; its atmospheric volume is just one per cent of that on Earth, though Mars' gravity is a third of that on our home world. Small and light, Ingenuity must generate the lift required to get itself into the air, where it’s expected to perform a series of short flights over 30 sols, hovering to heights of three metres (10 feet) for up to 30 seconds at a time.

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Perseverance landed on Mars in February, and mission control has been busy uploading all sorts of commands to test the trundlebot and its instruments. NASA wants to fly Ingenuity no earlier than April 8, and once a preflight checklist has been completed.

The rover has to drive to the perfect spot – a 10-by-10-metre (33-foot-by-33-foot) patch of flat, clear land – before its companion can be set free to fly over the Jezero Crater. The deployment process will take about six sols; the first three will be spent on unlocking Ingenuity and prepping for flight, the final three will involve unfurling its landing legs, charging its batteries, and finally, cutting the cord to set it loose on the Martian landscape.

“Once we cut the cord with Perseverance and drop those final five inches to the surface, we want to have our big friend drive away as quickly as possible so we can get the Sun’s rays on our solar panel and begin recharging our batteries,” said Bob Balaram, Mars Helicopter chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Ingenuity sports a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 system-on-chip running Linux as its brains, and uses algorithms from the Qualcomm Flight Platform to fly autonomously. This hardware and software platform was designed to control drones on Earth. Ingenuity carries a 4K camera, and will communicate with Perseverance to upload its images and receive flight commands. Perseverance is a PowerPC 750-based system running VxWorks.

“In addition to enabling the autonomous functioning of Ingenuity, Qualcomm Flight is also used in the communication system of the Mars Rover,” Qualy previously explained.

“The computing capabilities of Qualcomm Flight on the Rover processes the photos taken by the helicopter. This allows both Ingenuity and the Rover to work in tandem to gather and prepare the best possible photos that will be sent back to the JPL team on Earth.”

NASA engineers have stuck a patch of fabric around a cable underneath the helicopter’s solar panel taken from the Wright brothers’ Wright Flyer, which is recognized as Earth's first recorded successful heavier-than-air powered aircraft with a pilot in it. The material is a type of muslin nicknamed Pride of the West, and was used to cover the flyer’s wings. NASA's Apollo 11 crew took some of the material plus some wood from the aircraft to the Moon in 1969.

“Every step we have taken since this journey began six years ago has been uncharted territory in the history of aircraft,” said Bob Balaram, Mars Helicopter chief engineer at JPL. “And while getting [Ingenuity] deployed to the surface will be a big challenge, surviving that first night on Mars alone, without the rover protecting it and keeping it powered, will be an even bigger one.” ®


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