NASA's Mars helicopter gets ready to make history

After a technical hiccup, engineers are hoping the Ingenuity spacecraft will soon become the first vehicle to take flight on another world.

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This view of Ingenuity on the Martian surface was captured by NASA's Perseverance rover on April 8, 2021. The helicopter is going through a final series of tests before its first flight.

NASA is nearly ready to attempt the first flight on another planet. The space agency’s small helicopter, called Ingenuity, has been deposited in a flat area on Mars, and it is running through a series of final tests before it tries to lift into the thin Martian air.  

Ingenuity’s first flight was originally slated for April 11, but the mission hit a snag during a pre-flight test. While trying to spin the helicopter’s rotors at full speed without leaving the ground, Ingenuity’s onboard computer ended the test early. NASA says the helicopter is safe and communicating with Earth. The team plans to update the software on the helicopter and "will set a flight date next week," according to a NASA status update.

Flying on Mars is incredibly challenging because of the planet’s wispy atmosphere, which is equivalent to an altitude of about 100,000 feet on Earth—much higher than even the most capable helicopters can fly. The highest helicopter flight in history occurred in 1972, when French aviator Jean Boulet flew to 40,820 feet at an airbase northwest of Marseille.

During its first flight, Ingenuity will ascend to about 10 feet, hover and turn slightly, then touch back down. The trip will last just 30 seconds, but if it’s successful, Ingenuity will open up new opportunities for exploring other worlds, says MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“JPL, right? We dare mighty things,” says Aung, referring to the NASA lab’s official motto.

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