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NASA names target date for first Mars helicopter flight

NASA is making final preparations for the highly anticipated maiden flight of its Mars helicopter. When Ingenuity’s propellers start spinning and the diminutive contraption lifts off the surface, it will become the first aircraft to fly on another planet.

The space agency has revealed that it’s planning to launch Ingenuity on its maiden flight no earlier than April 8. The helicopter is currently attached to the underbelly of NASA’s Perseverance rover, which arrived on the red planet last month.

Perseverance recently tweeted the first image showing Ingenuity safely stored in its underbelly. The helicopter became visible after the rover disposed of its debris shield, which protected Ingenuity from the heat and vibration of last month’s landing.

Away goes the debris shield, and here’s our first look at the helicopter. It’s stowed sideways, folded up and locked in place, so there’s some reverse origami to do before I can set it down. First though, I’ll be off to the designated “helipad,” a couple days’ drive from here.

— NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) March 21, 2021

Perseverance also tweeted a map of the “airfield” where Ingenuity is set to make its first-ever flight, which, if everything goes to plan, will mark a new milestone in space engineering.

I’m on my way to the “airfield” where the #MarsHelicopter will attempt its first test flight. A couple more drives should get me there.

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— NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) March 23, 2021

Below is a short video shot inside a NASA laboratory prior to Perseverance’s launch that shows precisely how the rover will release the 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) helicopter from its underbelly and deploy it to the surface of Mars ahead of its first flight.

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 Ingenuity is on the ground, Perseverance will move away to give the aircraft enough room to spin its four 1-meter-long carbon-fiber rotors that will lift it off the ground.

NASA is planning to send Ingenuity on a total of five increasingly complex flights. The helicopter’s maiden flight will be a gentle hover test just a few meters off the ground to ensure that everything’s working as it should. Later flights, on the other hand, could see Ingenuity travel distances of up to 300 meters.

NASA is keen to prove that Ingenuity’s technology can handle Mars’ superthin atmosphere and extremely cold temperatures. It’s hoped the tests will pave the way for more advanced Mars helicopters capable of flying close to the Martian surface to seek out interesting research sites and also to collect data for mapping routes for future Mars rovers.

“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. Similarly, we want to learn about the potential Ingenuity has for the future of science research,” said Lori Glaze, director of the planetary science division at NASA headquarters. “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.”

Want to learn more about Ingenuity? This Digital Trends article has you covered.

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Trevor Mogg
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