NASA readies helicopter to fly on another planet for the first time and give 'bird's-eye view' of Mars

The helicopter named Ingenuity is a part of the Mars 2020 mission. It will hitch a ride with the Perseverance, a robot that will hunt for past life


                            NASA readies helicopter to fly on another planet for the first time and give 'bird's-eye view' of Mars
(Getty Images)

The countdown to launching the first helicopter to Mars has begun. If everything goes according to plan, an Earth-made helicopter will fly across the Martian skies, providing a "bird's-eye view" of the planet. 

In July, NASA will launch helicopter named Ingenuity — the first such flying object — to a different world. “NASA has a proud history of firsts,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "The thing that has me the most excited as the NASA administrator is getting ready to watch a helicopter fly on another world,"  he said during a news conference for the mission held on June 17. "That's something that's never been done before in human history, and here we are."

The helicopter is a part of the Mars 2020 mission. The main star of the project is the Perseverance rover, a robot assigned to look for signs of past life on the planet. The mission also aims to collect rock samples from the Martian surface and bring them back home.

Ingenuity will hitch a ride with the Perseverance, staying attached to its underside. Upon landing on the Red Planet, it will detach from the rover. According to  Matt Wallace, deputy project manager for the Mars 2020 mission, the helicopter will make three flying attempts. But that could change depending on the situation. "We're going to take them one flight at a time," he added.

The flight model of NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

On its maiden flight on Mars, Ingenuity will fly a few feet about the surface for about 20 to 30 seconds. If it succeeds, it would be a milestone as the Martian atmosphere is different as it is only one percent of the Earth. What is more, Perseverance will monitor its companion at close quarters using its 23 onboard cameras. The helicopter is programmed to stay at least 160 feet away from the rover.

Even if Ingenuity fails to pull off its goal, it will not affect the outcome of the project. The idea behind sending the helicopter is to only test NASA's technology. "Getting it to Mars, getting it safely off the vehicle, we're going to learn a lot. We are not looking for an extensive and ambitious return from this technology, we're looking to learn those first few things that we need to learn," Wallace said.

The helicopter, which took over six years to make, weighs a little under four pounds or 1.8 kilograms. If it succeeds, Ingenuity could provide a "bird's-eye view" of the Red planet.  "The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers. We already have great views of Mars from the surface, as well as from orbit," Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency headquarters in Washington, had earlier said in a statement.

The rover and the helicopter will blast off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 20 and reach the Red Planet on February 2021. They plan to transport half a kilogram of Martian rocks back to Earth — a feat that will take more than a decade to achieve.

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