NASA’s Upcoming Mars Mission Will Feature Helicopter Test Flight, Search For Proof Of Life On Red Planet

An illustration of the planet Mars.
AlexAntropov86 / Pixabay

On Thursday, July 30, NASA will be launching its Perseverance Mars rover with the help of a four-pound helicopter called Ingenuity. Aside from including a technology demonstration that could feature some revolutionary test flights, the mission will mark the space agency’s latest effort to search for signs of past or present life on the red planet.

As reported by CBS News on Wednesday morning, Ingenuity will fly to Mars while clutching the rover and attempt a series of flights after it touches down. The small helicopter will start out by flying like a “baby bird” and try to ascend 10 feet and move forward by up to six feet, with these distances increasing following each subsequent attempt.

The launch is scheduled to take place on Thursday morning at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The two vehicles are expected to arrive on Mars in February 2021, upon which the agency’s scientists would have about a month’s time to test Ingenuity.

According to project manager MiMi Aung, the upcoming tests represent a potentially historic moment in space travel.

“We as human beings have never flown a rotorcraft, a helicopter, anywhere outside of Earth’s atmosphere, so it’s really a Wright Brothers moment on another planet,” she said, according to New Scientist.

Although the test flights will only total a maximum of 15 minutes as a technology demonstration, Aung noted that future helicopters could come with more advanced capabilities. These might include the ability to explore previously inaccessible locations and act as scouts for astronauts and rovers.

A photo of the Martian surface from NASA's Curiosity rover.
  NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS / Getty Images

The upcoming Mars mission will, more importantly, stand out as the first of its kind in more than four decades to “explicitly” search for proof of life, following the late-1970s Viking 1 and Viking 2 missions. Georgetown University scientist Sarah Stewart Johnson explained that NASA appears to be on the right track with its scientific goals, as Perseverance will do more than just focus on the so-called “ingredients for life.”

“It was ‘follow the water’ for so long, and we just kept finding the water – we found swimming pools and swimming pools’ worth of water,” she said.

As described by CBS News, the new spacecraft appears to be a bigger and better version of the Curiosity rover that has been exploring Mars since 2012. But even with its “super-sanitized” sample return tubes, improved self-driving capabilities, enhanced robotic arm, nearly two dozen cameras, and other features, Perseverance will not be able to send any rock samples back to Earth. However, NASA is reportedly planning a return trip in 2026 that would allow for the samples to be picked up and brought back for further research.