The NASA helicopter placed on Mars could make its first flight over the Red Planet within two days of a first successful test of its rotors, the US space agency said on Friday. The current plan for the first-ever powered and controlled flight attempt on another planet is for the four-pound (1.8 kg) helicopter, dubbed Ingenuity, to take off from Jezero de Mars crater on Sunday at 10:54 p.m. EST. United States (8:24 a.m. IST) and hover 10 feet (3 meters) above the surface for half a minute, NASA said.
“The helicopter is good, it looks healthy,” Tim Canham, Ingenuity’s operations manager, said at a press conference. “Last night we did our 50 RPM spin, where we spun the blades very slowly and carefully,” he said.
The plan for Sunday is to have it rise, fly only vertically, hover and spin for 30 seconds to take a photo of the Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars on February 18 with the helicopter strapped to its underside.
Then the ingenuity will be brought down to the surface.
The flight will be autonomous, pre-programmed on the plane because of the 15 minutes it takes for signals to travel from Earth to Mars, and also because of the demanding environment of the distant planet.
“Mars is tough not only when you land, but also when you try to take off and fly around,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager.
She explained that the planet has a gravity significantly less than that of Earth, but less than 1% of the pressure of the Earth’s atmosphere on the surface.
This forces the Ingenuity to be able to spin its rotor blades much faster than a helicopter on Earth to fly.
“Put these things together, and you’ve got a vehicle that demands that every entry be right,” Aung said.
NASA captured the rotor test in a short video taken from the rover a few feet away, showing what a small drone looks like.
Aung said a second test will be carried out today with the rotors running at high speed.
“The only uncertainty remains the actual environment of Mars,” she said, referring to possible winds.
NASA calls the unprecedented helicopter operation very risky, but says it could collect invaluable data on conditions on Mars.
NASA plans up to five flights, each successively more difficult, over a period of one month.
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