NASA has delayed the first flight of its mini-helicopter to Mars by several days due to a technical problem that arose during the test of its rotors, the US space agency announced on Saturday.
Ingenuity’s trip, which is to be the very first flight of a motorized craft to another planet, was scheduled for Sunday but is now on hold until at least April 14.
A high-speed test of the 1.8-kilogram helicopter’s rotors ended earlier than expected due to an alert of a potential problem. By their rotation, these elements keep the helicopter in flight.
“The helicopter team is looking at the telemetry to diagnose and understand the problem,” NASA said in a statement. “Following this, they will reprogram the test at full speed.”
NASA said the helicopter was “safe and sound” and sent information to Earth.
Initially, the plan for Sunday was to fly Ingenuity in place for 30 seconds to take a photo of the Perseeerance rover, which touched down on Mars on February 18 with the helicopter strapped to its underside.
NASA describes this unprecedented operation as very risky, but says it could allow the collection of invaluable data on living conditions on Mars.
Flight is a real challenge, as Martian air is only 1% dense in the Earth’s atmosphere. However, it is by pushing the air while turning that the propellers can lift weight.
This means that Ingenuity has to spin its rotor blades much faster than a helicopter on Earth would in order to fly.
After the flight, the helicopter will transmit technical data to the rover on what it has achieved, which will in turn be sent to Earth. Among this early data, there will be a black and white photo of the ground taken by Ingenuity directly below it when it is in the air.
The next day, once its batteries are recharged, the helicopter will transmit a color photo of the horizon, taken by its other camera.
But the most spectacular images should come from the Perseverance rover, placed for observation several meters away, and which must film the flight.
If successful, the second flight may take place no more than four days later. Up to five flights in all are planned, of increasing difficulty.
NASA would like to be able to raise the helicopter up to 5 meters in height, then try to make it move sideways.
The operation will be the equivalent on Mars of the first flight of a motorized vehicle on Earth, in 1903, by the Wright brothers. A piece of fabric from this aircraft that took off more than a century ago in North Carolina in the United States has even been placed on board Ingenuity.
Whatever happens, after a month or less, the Ingenuity experiment will stop, leaving the Perseverance rover to devote itself to its main task: to search for traces of ancient life on Mars.