NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity lands on Red Planet to attempt first powered flight

First they landed on Mars, now NASA is attempting to fly a helicopter on the Red Planet.

The landmark flight of its helicopter, called Ingenuity, on Mars will be the first time an aircraft has flown on another planet. The first attempt is scheduled for this coming week. 

The breathtaking journey Perseverance made to Mars caught the attention of millions on Earth, but largely unnoticed in the bluster of the historic flight was the hidden helicopter onboard.

"Once an aircraft has flown on another world for the first time, perhaps the floodgates will open, other things will happen," says space expert Matthew Pavletich.

It's taken six years of NASA brain power and trial and error to get to this point.

"It has been a long journey. Everything from test programs that had failures in the early days," says Bob Balaram, chief engineer for Ingenuity Project.

Ingenuity has spent hours in a special space chamber that simulates conditions on Mars to prepare for a moment that is now just days away - its first flight on the Red Planet.

Photos taken by its two cameras will help the rover, Perseverance, in its mission to answer whether Mars could have once had life.

"This is the slow but sure investigation to the path to prove if that is true or not," Pavletich says.

But first, Perseverance has to deploy the 1.8kg helicopter from its belly onto the red dirt, and like most things on Mars, it's not an easy process. 

NASA's Ingenuity helicopter and Perseverance rover.
NASA's Ingenuity helicopter with all four of its legs deployed before dropping from the belly of the Perseverance rover on March 30, the 39th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Photo credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

NASA is aiming for five short flights, the first of which would be very simple. The chopper will rise to about 3 metres above the ground, hover, and turn for about 30 seconds before settling back down. 

"The terrain of Mars is not flat, it's undulating and quite rough, so in terms of learning to survey another world, these are the first basic tools for doing that," Pavletich says.

Just shy of 120 years since the first airplane took to the sky, this flight on Mars is already being billed as a Wright Brothers moment - which is why some fabric from the brothers' history-making plane has been taped to the chopper. 

"A lot of this has benefits for mankind, some of which we know about, some of which we're not yet aware of and they'll be coming down the pike later on," Pavletich says.

NASA's Ingenuity - about to unlock a whole new world of opportunities on Mars.