According to NASA, the first helicopter flight on Mars will take place in early April.
The Perseverance rover, which made a dramatic landing in Jezero Crater just over a month ago, took the tiny chopper to Mars.
The 1.8kg twin-rotor plane, dubbed Ingenuity, will attempt a series of short hops in Mars’ rarefied air.
If it succeeds, it will be regarded as a success.
This is, of course, a reference to Orville and Wilbur Wright, who flew the first heavier-than-air, powered airplanes here on Earth in 1903.
A postage stamp-sized piece of fabric from a wing of the brothers’ aircraft has been taped to Ingenuity to mark the relationship, according to the agency.
The chopper is still attached to Perseverance’s belly at the time. The craft was given a protective covering over the weekend and will be lowered to the ground in the coming days.
Engineers have designated a 10-meter-by-10-meter area in Jezero as the “airfield.”
This is at one end of a 90-meter “flight zone,” within which five sorties may be carried out.
Perseverance will pay off.
“We’ll do everything we can to capture Ingenuity in flight,” Nasa engineer Farah Alibay said.
“We’re going to take pictures, and we’re trying to get some video.”
She warned that this would be difficult. Both the rover and the helicopter are self-contained and have their own clocks. For the images to capture the action, the timing devices must be in sync.
Ingenuity is designed to be as light as possible. In order to achieve lift in Mars’ thin atmosphere, it must be.
It has four carbon-fibre blades that are arranged into two 1m-long rotors that spin at around 2,400 revolutions per minute in opposite directions. That is several times faster than a passenger helicopter’s blades would turn on Earth.
The first flight will be a straightforward one, with the chopper rising to about 3 meters above the ground, hovering and turning for about 30 seconds before landing.
Taking flights will become more complex if all goes well.
“Right now, we’re planning for the first three flights to demonstrate basic capability – hovering and then traversing to a long distance.”
According to Lori Glaze, who oversees Nasa’s planetary science efforts, Ingenuity could pave the way for future aerial exploration.
“Could we image areas that aren’t visible from space or that a rover wouldn’t be able to access?” Could a helicopter scout for rovers ahead of time and assist in plotting the most effective path for the best science? “Could we use aerial capabilities to support future human missions?” she wondered.
“These are the ones.”
In the 2030s, Nasa has approved the Dragonfly mission, which will use a robotic rotorcraft to fly across the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan.
With their Vega balloons in the atmosphere of Venus in the 1980s, the Soviets were the first to fly air vehicles on another globe.