In a hardscrabble crater on Mars, a tiny helicopter with a smartphone brain is now days away from attempting the first powered flight on another world. NASA hopes its spindly robot copter, named Ingenuity, will prove that powered flight is possible in the perilously thin Martian air and help usher in a new era of planetary exploration in which drones play a vital role.
Ingenuity reached Mars like a stowaway, folded up on the underside of NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed on the red planet in February after a seven-month, 293-million-mile voyage from Earth. For its maiden flight, the 4-pound, $85 million craft will simply rise about 10 feet above the surface and hover—no higher than the rim of a regulation basketball hoop—before returning to the surface. The whole flight should be over within 90 seconds.
The brief excursion—one of five planned for a one-month period expected to start on or about April 11—is a short hop by the measures of interplanetary travel. But agency officials said it would be a giant leap for Mars exploration. In the future, they said, autonomous drones like Ingenuity could take to the skies to explore canyons, ice caps and other terrain that is inaccessible to rovers. Should human explorers ever land on Mars, drones could serve as scouts and aerial sensors.
“We are hoping that Ingenuity allows us to expand and open up aerial mobility on Mars,” said Bob Balaram, the project’s chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
The flight of Ingenuity, part of a broader mission to seek signs of past life on the red planet, is the latest in a flurry of notable Mars moments this year.
Source: WSJ – US News