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How to watch the Mars helicopter’s historic 1st flight

The small helicopter is illustrated resting on the brown, flat surface of Mars. Perseverance is partially visible to the left.

In this illustration, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter stands on the red planet’s surface as the Perseverance rover (partly visible on the left) rolls away. Image via NASA/ JPL-Caltech.

NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity has unlocked its two rotor blades as preparations continue for the vehicle’s first flight, due to occur no earlier than this Sunday, April 11, 2021. Ingenuity arrived at Mars on February 18 along with the Perseverance rover, having made the long trek out to the red planet tucked inside the rover’s belly. But as of April 4, the little chopper has parted ways with Perseverance and is now preparing to take to the skies during a month-long test campaign. NASA will live-stream the sortie, which viewers can watch via NASA TV. A preflight briefing begins today, April 9. at 17:00 UTC (1 p.m. Eastern).

If Ingenuity’s Sunday flight is successful, it will be the first powered, guided flight on another planet. Expected to follow are a handful of other test flights over a month-long campaign that aims to show that aerial exploration is feasible in Mars’ thin atmosphere. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California – the facility that manages the helicopter’s activity – wrote in a tweet posted early in the day on April 8:

Ingenuity’s flight preparation process has been slow and cautious, in part because the 4 pound (1.8 kg) helicopter made the journey to Mars in a folded configuration. It was tucked inside the rover’s body, behind a protective shield. But after the rover dropped that shield and drove to the airfield, the helicopter’s personnel ordered the device to unpack and slowly unfold itself. Then, Perseverance had to set Ingenuity directly on the Martian surface and drive away, allowing the helicopter’s solar panels to begin supporting the aircraft.

Unlocking and testing Ingenuity’s blades mark the last major milestones in its preparations before the helicopter attempts to fly. NASA officials have said they will test the blades first at 50 and then at 2,400 revolutions per minute before the helicopter attempts to fly.

If Ingenuity is successful, future red planet missions may commonly include helicopters, which could serve as scouts for rovers and gather data on their own, NASA officials have said. Ingenuity won’t gather any data, since the small rotorcraft doesn’t carry any scientific instruments. But it will document its flights with a high-resolution camera. And Perseverance will be watching as well, from a safe distance away. There’s even a chance that the rover could record audio of Ingenuity’s flights using its two onboard microphones, NASA officials have said.

Meanwhile, as Ingenuity makes its flight preparations, Perseverance is looking at its surroundings and sending back images. Among other activities, the car-sized rover has been snapping photos of its own tire tracks and its sophisticated science arm.

A magnificent new photo mosaic (below) shows NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter. Community scientist Seán Doran created it by stitching together 62 photos taken by the rover. Doran posted via his Twitter account, @_TheSeaning. He said he put the constituent images through a “de-noise, repair and upscale process” prior to combining them: a process he calls “laborious.” The payoff is seen below.

Ingenuity also snapped its first color photograph on April 3, shortly after being lowered to the Martian dirt by the Perseverance rover. The image shows the floor of Mars’ 28-mile-wide (45 km) Jezero Crater and a portion of two wheels of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover. Doran told

Focusing on the connection between Percy and Ginny was an obvious choice for this composition. It is very exciting to see any new photos from another planet, but this one is very special, and I expect the technology demo to be a great success.

The surface of Mars looks brown, rocky, and uniform. Two wheels on the Perseverance rover are seen in the foreground above.

This low-resolution view of the floor of Mars’ Jezero Crater and a portion of two wheels of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover was captured by the agency’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter on April 3, 2021. It’s the first color photo taken by Ingenuity on the Martian surface. Image via NASA/ JPL-Caltech.

After Ingenuity’s work is done, Perseverance will begin the main objectives of its own science mission. The six-wheeled robot will hunt for signs of ancient Mars life and collect and cache dozens of samples for future return to Earth.

NASA chose Jezero Crater as the landing site for the Perseverance rover with good reason. Scientists believe the area was once flooded and home to an ancient water river delta more than 3.5 billion years ago. River channels spilled over the crater wall and created a lake, carrying clay minerals from its surroundings. Microbial life could have lived in the crater during one or more of these wet periods, and if so, signs of their remains might be found in lakebed or shoreline sediments. Scientists will study how the region formed and evolved, seek signs of past life, and collect samples of Mars rock and soil that might preserve these signs.

Bottom line: NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity has unlocked its two rotor blades as preparations continue for the vehicle’s first flight, due to occur no earlier than this Sunday, April 11, 2021. This event – the first powered, guided flight on another planet – will be live-streamed by NASA, via NASA TV. A pre-flight briefing begins on April 9 at 1 p.m. Eastern Time (17:00 UTC).

Read more from EarthSky: Touchdown! Perseverance lands successfully on Mars


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