Make your own Mars helicopter Ingenuity out of paper with this NASA guide!

Update for 3 p.m. ET: NASA has delayed the first flight of the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars until no earlier than Wednesday (April 14) after a final preflight test ended early.

NASA is preparing to fly its Mars helicopter Ingenuity on the Red Planet for the first time, and students can join in the excitement by building paper versions of the craft at home. 

Ingenuity flew to the Red Planet attached to the belly of the Perseverance rover, which touched down on Mars on Feb. 18. Ingenuity dropped to the Martian surface on April 3 and is now gearing up to make its first flight, which is expected to happen on April 11. 

Ingenuity, the first helicopter ever sent to another world, is designed to test technologies for future flying vehicles on other planets. NASA shared step-by-step instructions for students to create their own lightweight paper helicopter and experiment with different designs, much as NASA engineers did leading up to the July 2020 launch of Perseverance and Ingenuity. 

Related: How to watch the Mars helicopter Ingenuity's first flight online

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"We have satellites in orbit around Mars that take global pictures, and we have a rover on the surface that takes up-close pictures, but there are some places on Mars that a rover just can't go," a representative of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) said in the instructional video, which NASA posted on YouTube on Thursday (April 8). (JPL manages the missions of both Perseverance and Ingenuity.)

Once deployed, "the helicopter will fly around for a series of test flights and, if we're lucky, we might get some pictures of surfaces we can't see with the rover," the JPL commentator added. 

However, the Martian atmosphere is very thin — only about 1% the thickness of Earth's atmosphere at sea level — which makes it difficult for Ingenuity to fly. Therefore, the helicopter, which weighs only 4 lbs. (1.8 kilograms), is equipped with large angled blades that can rotate extremely fast in order to generate enough lift. 

Helicopter on Mars! NASA teaches kids about Ingenuity's upcoming 1st flight

NASA shows you how to build your own paper version of the Ingenuity Mars helicopter. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA's student guide to make a paper Mars helicopter encourages students to design their own aircraft bearing in mind the same limitations that JPL engineers had to deal with. Using paper, scissors, a pencil, measuring tape and ribbon, students can build a mock interplanetary helicopter. 

The step-by-step guide includes a helicopter template, which can be downloaded online. You can also just sketch the helicopter on a plain piece of paper if you wish. The tutorial walks students through the different cuts and folds to make in order to craft their own paper helicopter. 

Then, to test their helicopter design, students are asked to raise the paper aircraft as high in the air as possible and then drop it, while observing how the rotor blades turn. Students can repeat this from higher elevations or experiment with different rotor designs, by cutting the blades shorter or folding them to create a greater angle of incidence, to further test the paper helicopter's performance. 

You can find the full step-by-step learning guide to make a paper helicopter online, along with other educational activities for students to participate in NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter mission from home. 

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Samantha Mathewson
Contributing Writer

Samantha Mathewson joined as an intern in the summer of 2016. She received a B.A. in Journalism and Environmental Science at the University of New Haven, in Connecticut. Previously, her work has been published in Nature World News. When not writing or reading about science, Samantha enjoys traveling to new places and taking photos! You can follow her on Twitter @Sam_Ashley13.