Kitty Hawk, you've got company. On Sunday evening, April 11, humanity will attempt another flight first. That's when NASA's Ingenuity helicopter is expected to lift off from the surface of Mars. If successful it would be the first powered flight on another world. The drone-like copter left the safety of the Perseverance rover on April 3 to go it alone. Using solar cells mounted above its blades the mini-chopper now makes its own electricity.
Solar energy will charge Ingenuity's batteries which will power both its engine and the heaters that keep the helicopter warm during the bitter cold nights. Nighttime temperatures at Jezero Crater can plunge as low as -130° F (-90° C), cold enough to freeze and crack unprotected electrical components. NASA happily reports that the heaters are working, keeping Ingenuity's insides at a toasty 45° F (7° C).
The helicopter is essentially a technology demonstration exercise with a duration of 31-days. With no science instruments on board its sole goal will be to conduct flight tests in the thin Martian air. And take pictures. The Perseverance rover will serve as the base station for communications between the helicopter and mission controllers on Earth as well as provide weather data and photograph the airborne vehicle with its battery of cameras. Once the month is up the rover will begin it main mission of searching for evidence of past or present microbial life in earnest.
With a phone or computer anyone can "go along for the ride." A livestream confirming Ingenuity’s first flight is targeted to begin around 2:30 a.m. CDT Monday, April 12, on NASA Television, the NASA app, and the agency’s website, and will livestream on multiple agency social media platforms, including the JPL YouTube and Facebook channels. Since the liftoff is a delicate operation that involves lots of checking and coordination, click here for the latest updates to the flight schedule.
Gravity on Mars is just 38% of that on Earth, so you might think it would be relatively easy to fly a small craft there, but the Martian air, primarily carbon dioxide, is extraordinarily thin — less than 1% that of the air we breathe. To get Ingenuity off the ground, four carbon-fiber blades, arranged in two rotors spin in opposite directions at 2,400 rotations per minute. Such high speeds are necessary to generate sufficient lift to raise the 4-pound (1.8 kgs) craft.
The Mars-copter will lift off from a flat, unobstructed 33-by-33-foot (10-by-10-meter) “airfield”. Kitty Hawk, built by Orville and Wilbur Wright, flew 120 feet in 12 seconds at an altitude of 8 feet (2.4 meters) during its first powered flight on December 17, 1903. Ingenuity will hover about 12 feet (3 meters) off the ground for 20 seconds before it lands, for a total flight time of about half a minute. Should the April 11th test succeed, NASA will attempt more challenging flights: Ingenuity is capable of flying for 90 seconds over a total distance of 164 feet (50 meters) at a maximum height of 15 feet (4.5 meters).
I hope you're as excited as I am to witness this next chapter in the history of flight. Let's hope Ingenuity will be "cleared for takeoff" as planned this Sunday.
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Read more of his work at duluthnewstribune.com/astrobob.