'Helicopter' flight on Mars could be 'Wright Brothers moment'

"It will perform the very first ever performed power-controlled flight," Aung said of the Ingenuity helicopter, weighing at just four pounds.

NASA this Thursday will attempt to land the Perseverance rover on Mars.

Building on discoveries of nearly 20 U.S. outings to Mars, Perseverance may set the stage for scientists to conclusively show whether life has existed beyond Earth, while paving the way for eventual human missions to the fourth planet from the sun.

Video Transcript

MIMI AUNG: So our team studied the question of whether it is possible to fly a helicopter at Mars. And so we started with first demonstrating lift with a 1/3 scale vehicle here in a chamber of Mars-like atmospheric density. And somebody's outside trying to joystick this to fly. We achieved lift but not control.

We learned that the dynamics on Mars, in this thin atmosphere is very different. And so next we built a full-scale vehicle with onboard, real time, closed loop control, all the while weighing under 1.8 kilograms. That's 4 pounds.

So what you're seeing on the video here is one of our many, many flights that we experimented with this 1.8-kilogram Mars helicopter. And you see the helicopter flying. It looks very easy when you look at it. But you're looking at a room with atmosphere about 1% compared to the room that you're sitting in right now.

The next major milestone will be when Perseverance rover delivers Ingenuity to the surface of Mars. You'll see that the debris shield that protects the helicopter on descent is first deployed. And then the helicopter is deployed by what's called the Mars Helicopter Delivery System. It's a very intricate system that's going to take about 10 days to go through the series that you're seeing to drop Ingenuity to the surface.

And that drop, the moment that drop happens is the moment that Ingenuity has to start operating on its own in a standalone fashion, has to survive the cold, frigid nights of Mars, minus 90 degrees Celsius, keep itself warm. It has to garner energy from the sun through its solar panels to charge its battery. It has to talk to the Space Station. It has to do all of that in its little 4 pounds.

And then we will go for that very important first flight. Rover will stay at least 100 meters away and will be watching Ingenuity. And Ingenuity will take its first flight. The first flight will ascend to about 3 meters in height and hover for about 20 seconds. And it will perform the very first ever powered controlled flight on another planet.

[HELICOPTER BLADES BUZZING]

And as Thomas mentioned at the beginning of this event, it will be truly a Wright brothers moment but on another planet.