Tech

NASA’s Mars helicopter spins up its blades ahead of hoped-for 12 April hover

The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is set to take its first flight after engineers spun its blades up to 50rpm in preparation.

The downlink from the first flight is due on 12 April at 0730 UTC (0330 ET) with a postflight briefing scheduled for 1500 UTC (1100 ET). The dates currently carry a “not earlier than” prefix as engineers keep an eye on Martian conditions, but the testing of the diminutive device’s rotors indicates there is every chance the first flight will go ahead.

Having been deposited on the ground by the Perseverance rover, Ingenuity has been prepared for flight over recent days. Engineers have been balancing a number of factors ahead of that first attempt above the surface of Mars.

The first is that the helicopter must fly during the day, even though the increased air density of the Martian night would make flying easier. Its camera, however, is designed to observe the ground during daylight. Secondly, power is a consideration; the helicopter needs to maintain voltage and as such cannot fly until it has had time to warm up from the Martian night and recharge its batteries. Therefore the flight will take place during the middle of the day and afternoon on Mars.

Finally, there is the challenge of winds. While the team has tested on Earth, “the biggest risk is at takeoff and landing, when an untimely gust could present challenges,” according to Bob Balaram, chief engineer for the Mars Helicopter Project.

Ingenuity is very much a technical demonstrator but if it does work as engineers hope, the 1.8kg drone could eventually manage a 90-second flight over the surface. Its range is 300 metres and engineers reckon it could fly as high as five metres.

The next step will be reaching the approximately 2,400rpm flight speed of the blades before the first flight is attempted. Should all go to plan, Ingenuity will rise to to around a metre from the ground, where it will hover for between 20 to 30 seconds. ®




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