Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech TORONTO — NASA’s solar-powered helicopter is set to be the first aircraft to operate on another planet and could set the standard for interplanetary space exploration. The spacecraft called “Ingenuity” is an extension of NASA’s Perseverance robot, which landed on the Red Planet in February. NASA is targeting no earlier than April 8 for the helicopter to make its first attempt at a remote-controlled flight from another planet. “If we can scout and scientifically survey Mars from the air with its thin atmosphere, then we can certainly do the same in a number of other destinations across the solar system like Titan or Venus,” Bob Balaram, Mars helicopter chief engineer said at a NASA press briefing. Ingenuity is a tiny solar-powered helicopter that took seven years to design, test and build. The device travelled attached to the body of the Perseverance rover, which also made history after being the first spacecraft to autonomously land on Mars. The rover will also gather Martian samples in hopes of discovering signs of life in space. Before Ingenuity takes its first flight on Mars, the aircraft must meet a series of qualifications. The rover is currently in transit to the airfield where it will attempt to fly. In order for the aircraft to make a successful takeoff, the airfield must be clear of obstructions. “We really scoured this area. We looked at every rock and pebble in that airfield and measured it before we were comfortable finally saying yes – this is going to be our home base for our helicopter,” said Havard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot. Once deployed, Ingenuity will have 31 days to conduct its test flight campaign. “The first flight is special, by far the most important flight that we plan to do. It will be the first powered flight by an aircraft on another planet,” said Grip. A TRIBUTE TO AVIATION HISTORY The propeller design is being compared to the original aircraft the Wright brothers invented nearly 118 years ago. A small amount of the material that covered one of the wings of the Wright brothers’ aircraft, known as the Flyer, will be on board the Ingenuity as it attempts to make its first flight. The swatch made the 300 million-mile journey to Mars after it was donated by the Carillon Historical Park in Dayton, Ohio, the Wrights’ hometown. “We did things that have never been done before – it’s sort of Wright brother moment, in that we get to go planet outside earth try helicopter there never tried before,” said Balaram. The Wrights used the same type of material – an unbleached muslin called “Pride of the West” – to cover their glider and aircraft wings beginning in 1901, according to a press release from NASA. “The Apollo 11 crew flew a different piece of the material, along with a small splinter of wood from the Wright Flyer, to the Moon and back during their iconic mission in July 1969,” the press release states. The Red Planet has approximately one-third that of Earth’s gravity, but the air quality and overall atmosphere is far more dense than Earth’s, making flying in a controlled manner more difficult, according to NASA. The planet also receives only about half of the amount of solar energy that reaches Earth during the daytime, and temperatures can drop to -100 Celsius, posing a risk to the helicopter’s electrical components. Lori Glaze, director of the planetary science division at NASA, said she sees this aircraft paving the way for space exploration in the future. “Ingenuity will open new possibilities and will spark questions for the future about what we could accomplish with an aerial explorer,” said Glaze. “We’re looking forward to seeing how our little helicopter does on the surface of Mars,” she said.