NASA has been exploring the surface of Mars with rovers for about 25 years, says Dave Lavery, a scientist and robotics expert at NASA Headquarters in Washington. But no one has flown an aircraft on a planet other than Earth before.
“Capable as the rovers are, there’s always a place that’s either a little bit too far away, or across terrain that’s a little bit too rugged, or on the other side of a very deep chasm,” says Lavery. He manages the NASA program that focuses on exploring our solar system. “What we hope is that if Ingenuity is successful, we’ll be able to explore in a whole new way.”
That’s a big “if,” though. Only about half of Mars landings have been successful. And even if Perseverance is able to land successfully, scientists aren’t certain that Ingenuity will be able to fly as expected.
The Martian atmosphere is only about 1 percent the density of what we’re used to on Earth. That means that the air is really thin, and piloting the four-pound drone on the surface of Mars will be like trying to fly at about 100,000 feet of altitude on Earth. That’s almost three times as high as airplanes usually fly.
Ingenuity will also have to survive very cold temperatures of minus-130 degrees Fahrenheit and recharge its batteries using solar panels.
Just like you probably did when you learned how to ride a bike, Ingenuity will start slowly, Lavery says. First, the scientists will see whether Ingenuity can fly straight up and hover a few feet above the ground before touching back down safely. Next they will test its ability to take short horizontal flights. Finally, if everything else goes according to plan, Ingenuity will try to fly about the length of a football field and return to its home base on the rover.
It can take as long as 45 minutes for instructions to travel from Earth to Mars, which means the scientists won’t be controlling the helicopter with a joystick. Instead everything the helicopter does will be programmed in advance by a computer.
Lavery says that in the future tiny helicopters could go out and collect samples from the planet, act as scouts for rovers or even transport equipment for astronauts. That is, assuming Ingenuity doesn’t crash and burn.
“We’re a little bit nervous, because we’ve done everything that we can to make sure that Ingenuity is ready,” Lavery says. “But we still don’t know everything that there is to know about Mars. And every now and then, Mars surprises us.”
Bittel is a freelance journalist who often writes about animals. His children’s book, “How to Talk to a Tiger . . . and Other Animals,” will be published in April.