A historic flight in which a 4-pound NASA helicopter would attempt to hover above the surface of Mars on Sunday was delayed by at least several days Saturday, officials said.
“#MarsHelicopter 1st flight attempt delayed to no earlier than April 14. During the high-speed spin test, the sequence ended early during the transition from `preflight’ to `flight’ mode. The helicopter is safe & healthy. The team is diagnosing the issue,” mission managers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory tweeted Saturday.
The helicopter separated last weekend from the Perseverance rover that carried it to the Red Planet, and for the past week it underwent a series of operational tests, including a spin of its rotors.
Ingenuity had planned to lift off from the surface of Mars at 7:54 p.m. California time Sunday. The plan was for the helicopter to rise 10 feet off the planet’s surface, then hover for 30 seconds before dropping back to Mars.
Ingenuity has no scientific instrumentation aboard. It is strictly a demonstration mission to determine the feasibility of operating such a craft on other planets.
“While Ingenuity carries no science instruments, the little helicopter is already making its presence felt across the world, as future leaders follow its progress toward an unprecedented first flight,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters. “We do tech demos like this to push the envelope of our experience and provide something on which the next missions and the next generation can build. Just as Ingenuity was inspired by the Wright brothers, future explorers will take off using both the data and inspiration from this mission.”
The helicopter, in fact, was going to carry some Wright brothers history with it. Wrapped on a cable beneath the helicopter’s solar panel is a small swatch of fabric that covered the wings of the plane that made the first flight on Earth — Orville and Wilbur Wright’s “Flyer” — which pioneered air travel in 1903.
If Ingenuity’s flight does eventually occur, it will be more than five hours before JPL mission managers receive the first data back from the flight attempt. When that data is received, mission managers will be able to gauge the success of the test, and will then determine how to proceed with additional flights.
The helicopter’s flight is completely autonomous, with the distance to Mars making it impossible to control the flight from JPL headquarters in Pasadena. Radio signals take more than 15 minutes to travel 173 million miles to Mars.
JPL commands to the helicopter are actually relayed by the Perseverance rover, which is parked about 215 feet from Ingenuity and will be watching any flight with its cameras. The helicopter itself is in the middle of a 33-foot-by-33-foot airfield chosen for its unobstructed terrain.
Ingenuity is also equipped with a camera that will document the flight.
The commands from Perseverance will instruct Ingenuity to begin spinning its rotors, taking 12 seconds to reach the speed of 2,537 rpm. The helicopter will then be instructed to change the pitch of the rotor blades to enable the takeoff.
Flying on another planet is vastly different than flying on Earth, with mission managers noting that gravity on Mars is about one-third of Earth’s, while the atmosphere on the surface is about 1% as dense as that on Earth.