Ingenuity drone liftoff from Mars surface set for “fluid” April 8 date

Mars Helicopter Ingenuity, shown in an illustration with the Perseverance rover nearby, should make a 30-second flight up from the Martian surface and down again as early as April 8. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Mars Helicopter Ingenuity is targeted to lift off the Martian surface as early as April 8 in the first technology demonstration of a powered, controllable aerial flight on another planet.

“We’re focused on that Wright Brothers moment,” said Bobby Braun, director for planetary science at JPL in an online news briefing with NASA and JPL officials on Tuesday.

The 4-pound helicopter will carry a postage stamp-sized piece of muslin fabric called “Pride of the West” preserved from the glider the Wrights used in 1901 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Ingenuity’s April 8 liftoff date is “fluid,” according to Bob Balaram, Ingenuity chief engineer for JPL.  The drone could fly up to five times over 31 Earth days—but has to pass the first hurdle of an initial flight 3 meters vertically.

 On that first flight, it will rise 3 meters, hover 30 seconds and turn and then set back down. Subsequent flights could reach 5 meters up and run a distance of 90 meters from the launch site.

mars heli flight area
Ingenuity's flight zone in the Jezero Crater on Mars

 “We’re going to play it by ear a little bit,” Balaram said. Noting it is a tech demo, he said there are some “stretch goals” that might be possible.  

Ingenuity must compete against a thin Marian atmosphere equal to just 1% of Earth’s, so the twin counter-rotating rotors must spin faster than they would on Earth to compensate.  There are also potential wind gusts, but Ingenuity is equipped with computer processing power and cameras to track landmarks already recorded in the landscape so it can hold its position and adjust rpms of the 4-foot blades and position itself when needed. The blades normally spin about 2,400 rpm.

“The biggest challenge is the atmosphere with its own dynamics and wind gusts,” Balaram said. “We tested in wind tunnels so we have some confidence that these things will be good.” Materials for the drone had to be kept light enough to allow for proper lift.

Over the coming 10 days, various Ingenuity systems will be tested for the first flight. The Perseverance rover must be positioned in the perfect spot to drop the helicopter onto the surface from its belly.  There will be a tense 25 hours while the rover pulls away from atop the drone so that sunlight strikes Ingenuity’s solar panels to charge its commercial off-the-shelf Lithium-Ion batteries.

Martian nights are cold, down to nearly to 98 degrees below zero F on recent nights. That severe cold is why the heating power from the sun’s energy is so critical to all of Ingenuity’s components.

In addition to the COTS batteries, JPL relied on Qualcomm processors very comparable to those seen in smartphones of about two years ago, Balaram said. The computer on Ingenuity actually runs about 150 times faster than the computer on the rover to provide for computing necessary for navigation and image processing of boulders and landmarks previously recorded nearby.

“If we add up all the computers now in outer space, we have two times [their power] just because of the power we need” for Ingenuity, he said.

The rover landed on Mars on Feb. 18 with Ingenuity on its belly.  At the time, Qualcomm told Fierce Electronics that the main computer on Ingenuity is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor with a quad-core CPU, a GPU and a 55 megapixel downward facing image signal processor.  The processor is not ruggedized for use on Mars by itself, although the heating capabilities of the helicopter provide protection against cold.

RELATED: Drone helicopter lands on Mars attached to belly of Perseverance rover

While the first flight is scheduled for April 8 at the earliest, there won’t be a countdown as with typical Earth launches because all of the flight instructions will be relayed the day before, with NASA and JPL using Martian weather data to predict ideal conditions.   The rover will park itself about 25 meters away to make video recordings of the flight, which could take up to a day to reach Earth.

The full program cost of Ingenuity is about $80 million, Braun told reporters. Its design and capabilities for scouting will potentially transfer to a quad rotor craft being planned for use on 2026 Dragonfly mission to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.

NASA expects to spend $2.7 billion for the overall Perseverance project.  Operations of the mission over two years will make up $300 million of that total, while the spacecraft development cost eats up $2.2 billion and the Atlas V launch conducted in 2020 make up $243 million.