NASA has resolved the issues with its Ingenuity helicopter on the surface of Mars and is ready to fly.
The space agency announced on Saturday that it will attempt to fly the small, 1.8kg helicopter early on Monday. The first flight is scheduled to take place at about 3:30am ET (07:30 UTC). It will take a few hours to relay data from the helicopter to the Perseverance rover, and then to an orbiting satellite and back to Earth. So NASA anticipates receiving the first data back from Mars some time after 6:15am ET.
The space agency will begin a livestream at that time, sharing any photos and reactions from scientists and engineers as humans attempt to fly a powered vehicle on another world for the first time.
NASA originally planned to fly Ingenuity about one week ago, but during a pre-flight test engineers encountered a problem. When the engineers sent a command to the helicopter to test the rotation of its two counter-rotating blades, each of which is 1.2 meters long, an issue prevented the test from occurring.
Since then the mission team, led by project manager MiMi Aung at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, worked on a software fix to that entailed adding a few commands to the flight sequence. Since this was a change to software that had been in a stable configuration for about two years, it required extensive testing and validation before being sent to the helicopter.
But the software patch seems to have worked, because on Friday the helicopter completed a full-speed spin test, setting up the opportunity for a historic flight. For this first flight, Ingenuity will rise a couple of meters above the ground, hover in the air for about 20 to 30 seconds, and then land. Notably, the first flight of the Wright Brothers’ airplane lasted for 12 seconds.
If this test flight is successful, NASA will get more bold in future forays, eventually flying the helicopter for up to 300 meters distance at a time.
This is all experimental, so it’s quite possible that Ingenuity will fail. But NASA deserves credit for taking risks in order to push the frontier of exploration out that little bit further. And in attempting to fly on Mars, NASA will be gathering valuable data for an ambitious mission to Titan, Dragonfly, that will attempt to hop across the enigmatic moon’s sand dunes about a decade from now.