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Mars helicopter is off the ground … but it’s not flying just yet

One of the most highly anticipated parts of NASA’s Mars rover mission actually has nothing to do with the rover and everything to do with a flying machine.

Ingenuity is essentially a small helicopter, and it’s set to become the first aircraft to perform a powered flight on another planet.

It traveled to Mars attached to the underside of the Perseverance rover, which arrived on the red planet in a dramatic landing in February 2020.

Now the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is overseeing the current Mars mission, is in the process of gently lowering Ingenuity onto the Martian surface ahead of its maiden flight, which could take place as early as April 8, 2021.

On Wednesday, NASA tweeted a photo (top) of the helicopter, its legs fully extended, just inches from the ground as Perseverance prepares to set it down.

“We’re in the home stretch,” NASA said in a message accompanying the photo. “The Mars Helicopter has lowered all four legs and is in position to touch down on the Martian surface. Once it’s fully ready, Perseverance will release it gently to the surface.”

A video (below) shot in the laboratory prior to Ingenuity’s departure shows in detail the various stages of the deployment process that’s currently underway. It also shows the moment that Ingenuity is dropped several inches to the ground, a process that the helicopter will experience in the coming days.

The journey of 314 million miles all comes down to the last few inches. See how the Mars Helicopter Delivery System will get Ingenuity safely to the surface of the Red Planet, where it will try the first experimental powered flight on another world.

— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) June 23, 2020

Once Perseverance has released Ingenuity, the rover will drive away to give the aircraft space to take its first-ever flight on Mars.

All being well, Ingenuity will take five separate flights, each one slightly more challenging than the one before.

The initial flight, for example, will involve the helicopter embarking on a gentle hover test just a few meters off the ground to confirm that the machine has arrived in full working order. Later flights could see Ingenuity traveling for up to 300 meters.

The Mars helicopter is being held just above the ground by the Perseverance rover prior to being set down on the Martian surface. NASA

The primary goal of Ingenuity’s mission is to test the technology to demonstrate that it’s possible to fly a rotorcraft in Mars’ super-thin atmosphere and in extremely cold temperatures.

If successful, the tests will lay the groundwork for more advanced Mars helicopters that can fly close to the Martian surface to look for useful research sites, and also to collect data for mapping routes for future Mars rovers.

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