NASA is getting ready to send its next Mars rover to the Red Planet later this year, and that mission will also carry Ingenuity, a brand new helicopter robot that will attempt to make history by becoming the first vehicle to perform a powered atmospheric flight on another planet. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) created a trailer of sorts to show you approximately what that flight will look like, when it takes place sometime after the targeted February 18, 2021 arrival date for the Mars 2020 mission.
Ingenuity may look like a simple dual rotor drone, but it’s actually a groundbreaking piece of engineering that has to overcome significant technical challenges in order to complete its mission of performing short-altitude “hops” on Mars. That’s its sole goal, and the 4-lb craft doesn’t have any other instruments on board, as it’s essentially a demonstrator that will set up the design and development of future aerial exploration craft to help with the study of Mars.
Even flying the softball-sized main body of Ingenuity is an achievement, because flying on Mars requires much more lift than it does here on Earth due to the nature of the planet’s atmosphere. Accordingly, the helicopter’s test flights will only last around 90 seconds each, and climb to a height of just 16.5 feet — easy here at home, but roughly equivalent to flying at around 100,000 feet on Earth — much higher than most commercial aircraft.
NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is currently scheduled to launch between July 17 and August 5 this year, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has reiterated multiple times that the mission remains a top priority despite restrictions and workarounds necessitated by COVID-19, because the optimal window for making the trip to Mars only recurs once every two or so years.