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Tiny helicopter Ingenuity is set to make history this weekend, as it is about to become the first aircraft to be flown on another planet.
The plucky Mars explorer has been dropped off by its rover buddy Perseverance and is preparing for a test flight on Sunday morning. The data about the mission should be received by NASA early on Monday morning, in an event that will be livestreamed so you can watch along.
How to watch the livestream
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter is seen in a close-up taken by Mastcam-Z, a pair of zoomable cameras aboard the Perseverance rover. This image was taken on April 5, 2021, the 45th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU
NASA will be livestreaming coverage of the team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) as they receive the first data from the flight attempt.
The flight itself is scheduled for Sunday, April 11 at 12:30 p.m. local Mars solar time (10:54 p.m. ET, 7:54 p.m. PT). Then it will take several hours for the data to be processed and transmitted from Mars to Earth. The JPL team expects to receive the first data early in the morning of Monday, April 12, at around 4:15 a.m. ET (1:15 a.m. PT).
The livestream will begin at 3:30 a.m. ET (12:30 a.m. PT) on Monday, April 12, and will show the team receiving the data. After this, at 11 a.m. ET (8 a.m. PT), there will be a post-flight briefing giving more details about the flight.
The livestream will be shown on NASA TV, which you can watch either at the NASA website or using the video embedded above.
The timing of the flight could change at the last minute depending on conditions, so you can find the latest information about timing here.
What to expect from the test flight
This will be just the first of several planned test flights for Ingenuity. The idea is to start with the most simple test, with the helicopter taking off, hovering, and landing again, and then to move onto more complex tests if that is successful.
However, even a simple flight isn’t easy when you’re talking about operating a helicopter on another planet. “Mars is hard not only when you land, but when you try to take off from it and fly around, too,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at JPL, in a statement. “It has significantly less gravity, but less than 1% the pressure of our atmosphere at its surface. Put those things together, and you have a vehicle that demands every input be right.”
During the test flight, Ingenuity will operate autonomously, using its navigation and guidance systems to control its movements. After several preflight checks, the helicopter will spin up its blades and attempt to take off.
“It should take us about six seconds to climb to our maximum height for this first flight,” said JPL’s Håvard Grip, the flight control lead for Ingenuity. “When we hit 10 feet, Ingenuity will go into a hover that should last – if all goes well – for about 30 seconds.”
The flight will be documented not only by Ingenuity itself but also by the Perseverance rover which will be nearby to capture images of the helicopter in action.
“The Wright brothers only had a handful of eyewitnesses to their first flight, but the historic moment was thankfully captured in a great photograph,” said Michael Watkins, director of JPL. “Now 117 years later, we are able to provide a wonderful opportunity to share the results of the first attempt at powered, controlled flight on another world via our robotic photographers on Mars.”