The Wright brothers demonstrated that powered flight in Earth’s atmosphere was possible using an experimental aircraft. Now we are trying to do the same on Mars. Håvard Grip of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is the lead pilot of the Ingenuity helicopter, the first to attempt to fly to another planet. The artifact considered an engineering marvel, travels attached to the belly of the brand new Perseverance rover, destined to search for life on the Red Planet. If successful, it could be the precedent for a new aerial way of exploring Mars and, why not, other worlds as well.

Ingenuity (the name means “Ingenuity” in English and was proposed by a student) is a light bird. He weighs just 1.8 kilos, but he has some outsized ambitions. For starters, it’s a technology demo, a project looking to test a new capability for the first time, with a limited scope. It features four carbon fiber blades arranged on two rotors that spin in opposite directions at around 2,400 rpm, many times faster than a passenger helicopter on Earth. It also has innovative solar cells, batteries, and other components. It carries no scientific instruments and is a separate experiment from Perseverance, the most advanced rover ever built.

The most exciting thing about this helicopter is that after the mission landing in the Jerez crater on February 18 and if everything goes as expected, it will carry out the first attempt in History to fly on another planet. Ingenuity will unfold from the belly of Perseverance, where it will have traveled up to that point, during the spring and will attempt to fly. It is not an easy task. For one thing, the thin atmosphere of Mars makes it difficult to achieve sufficient elevation. It is precise because the Martian atmosphere is 99% less dense than Earth’s that Ingenuity must be light, with much larger blades and spin much faster than a helicopter of the same mass would need on Earth. Another challenge will be the bone-chilling cold at Jezero crater, where nights drop to -90ºC. However, the team has tested the spacecraft on Earth at Martian temperatures and thinks it should work.

Four flights But how will the helicopter be controlled? Let no one think of some kind of drone. Flight controllers at JPL will not be able to steer it with a joystick. Due to communication delays, commands will need to be sent well in advance, and engineering data will return long after each flight occurs. In the meantime, Ingenuity will have a lot of autonomy to make its own decisions about its flight. Ingenuity must overcome a series of milestones, from surviving launch, travel, and landing, through safe deployment, staying warm on cold Martian nights, or charging autonomously with its solar panel. If you are successful on your first flight attempt, you will attempt four more within a 30 Martian day (31 Earth days) window. When a ship lands on Mars, everything is so complicated and there are so many things that can go wrong that engineers refer to that moment as the “seven minutes of terror.” Well, this helicopter is going to be a heart attack, because it will repeat them every time it tries to take off or land.

A unique point of view, The device aims to demonstrate the technologies necessary to fly in the Martian atmosphere. If it fails, it will not affect the scientific results of the Mars 2020 mission. If it works, other helicopters could be included in future robotic and human missions to Mars. It aims to offer a unique vantage point not provided by current high-altitude orbiters or by rovers and landers on the ground. Its high-resolution images would allow access to terrain that is difficult for rovers to reach. The Ingenuity team has done everything possible to test the helicopter on Earth, and we look forward to flying our experiment in the real environment of Mars,” says Mimi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at JPL. We will learn all the time and it will be the best reward for our team to be able to add another dimension to the way we explore other worlds in the future.