NASA is about to land the first-ever helicopter on Mars.
The little craft, weighing in at just under 4 lbs. (1.8 kilograms) and named Ingenuity (a moniker given by Alabama student Vaneeza Rupani), is tucked up in the belly of NASA's Perseverance rover. Ingenuity, which launched last summer on board Perseverance as part of the agency's Mars 2020 mission, will make the first powered flight on another planet.
And the helicopter is ready to land today (Feb. 18). The "Mars helicopter has been fully tested as much as we can on Earth," MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said in a news conference Tuesday (Feb. 16). Ingenuity will land today with Perseverance, which is set to touch down in Mars' Jezero Crater — an ancient delta that scientists think could hold concrete evidence of past life on Mars.
"To see it there, getting there finally, it's kind of surreal still," Josh Ravich, Ingenuity's mechanical engineering lead at JPL, told Space.com.
Now, the Mars helicopter, or "marscopter," isn't a fully-fledged transportation device and it's vastly different from helicopters we have here on Earth. The tiny craft is "just a technology demonstration," Ravich said. "Its primary goal is just to see if we can fly on Mars — prove that the technology works."
The day after Perseverance lands, the team "will turn [Ingenuity] on to confirm that the health is good," Aung said. "After that, the next major milestone will be when [the] Perseverance rover delivers Ingenuity to the surface of Mars." To get to this next step, the team will have to find a suitable location for the experimental flight.
"The helicopter team will be working with the rover team and the scientists to look for the appropriate experimental site for our flight experiments," Aung said.
After the site is chosen, the marscopter will take its inaugural flight, the first flight by a powered craft on an alien world. This is likely to happen in the early stages of the Mars 2020 mission, and Ingenuity will likely make its first, short flight within the first few months of the mission, Mars 2020 systems testbed engineer Elio Morillo told Space.com.
Perseverance rover's Mars landing: Everything you need to know
To get to the planet's surface, however, the helicopter needs to be dropped from the rover's belly where it spent its time during the interplanetary journey. To make this drop, Ingenuity has to go through what is known as the Mars helicopter delivery system. "It's a very intricate system that's going to take about 10 days to go through ... to drop Ingenuity to the surface," Aung said.
However, Aung added, "the moment that drop happens is the moment that Ingenuity has to start operating on its own in a standalone fashion."
During Ingenuity's first flight, the craft will lift up, flying about 10 feet (3 meters) above the ground. It will hover there for about 20 seconds, according to Aung.
But the tiny Martian helicopter doesn't just have the ambitious task of flying on another world, "this little four-pounder has to survive the cold frigid nights of Mars," Aung said, adding that to "keep itself warm, it has to garner energy from the sun through its solar panels to charge its battery. It has to talk to the [International] Space Station. It has to do all of that."
Future marscopter applications
Now, while Ingenuity might just be an exploratory technology demonstration, "there's a lot of future applications" for the craft, Ravich said.
For instance, with a vehicle like Ingenuity, "you can fly pretty far ahead pretty quickly, you can go to places you can't go otherwise: up mountains, down ravines — places that humans and rovers wouldn't really be able to access," he said. He added that such a capability could assist future robotic missions with scouting and imaging challenging terrain, and it could even one day be of assistance to crewed missions.
A helicopter compared with, for example, rovers or future human explorers, could have "access to places you can't go otherwise," Ravich added, specifying that Martian lava tubes could potentially be more easily explored by a helicopter than other vehicles, and it could do that exploration fairly quickly, or at least quicker than robotic surface vehicles like rovers.
Future crewed missions could also possibly be supported by vehicles like Ingenuity, he added.
For example, "I'm out doing Mars operations as an astronaut, I forgot my wrench back home at the base. Maybe I can send a helicopter back to pick it up for me," he said.
However helicopters are used on Mars in the future, Ingenuity's first flight is "a true extraterrestrial Wright Brothers moment," Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters, said during the news conference Feb. 16.
Email Chelsea Gohd at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.