There’s a tiny helicopter sitting on Mars right now, waiting to demonstrate the first powered flight on an extraterrestrial planet. Its name is Ingenuity, and it rode to the red planet in the belly of NASA’s Perseverance rover, which just dropped the small aircraft off onto the Martian surface.
The Ingenuity team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is busy at work getting the aircraft ready for its first flight demonstration, which is currently scheduled to take place sometime next week.
Farah Alibay, a systems engineer at NASA who serves as the Perseverance integration lead for Ingenuity, said the helicopter is both the “craziest” and “cutest” project she’s ever worked on.
“We haven’t been flying on Earth for all that long, and now we’ve gone to a whole other planet, millions of miles away, and we’re going to attempt to fly,” Alibay told VICE News.
“We think it’s going to work,” she added. “We think physics works a certain way. But either way, we’re going to learn a whole lot and that’s the goal of this.”
Flying on Mars is no easy feat. Though the planet is much smaller than Earth, which means it exerts less gravity on objects at its surface, its atmosphere is about 100 times thinner than the skies on our own planet. Given that air pressure is what helps aircraft generate lift, Ingenuity is equipped with extended rotors that will help carry its four-pound heft into the (very thin) air.
The helicopter’s first flight will be a cautious ascent to an altitude of about 10 feet that will last about a minute. If that demonstration works, Ingenuity could eventually venture about 160 feet across the Martian surface before returning to its landing site. The mission will conclude after a month so that NASA can focus on their main Martian priority: the Perseverance rover.
As a nod to the historic nature of this demonstration, Ingenuity is carrying a small piece of the Wright Flyer, which demonstrated the first crewed powered flight on Earth in 1903. Just as the Wright brothers pioneered aviation on our planet, Ingenuity might lead to a new era of extraterrestrial flyers sent to explore the skies of other worlds.
But first, the Martian helicopter has to make its move. Space enthusiasts around the world are eagerly awaiting Ingenuity’s first flight attempt, whenever it’s able to make it.
“It is definitely really humbling to be a part of this team,” Alibay said. “I think we’re all a little nervous, and we’re excited. The work has been put in. The work is done. All we can do now is take our shot and see what happens.”
“It’s been incredible also to see the world follow along with us, and to be so engaged and behind us,” she added. “We’re definitely feeling everyone’s energy and support in what we’re trying to attempt.”