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NASA helicopter brought a piece of the Wright brothers' plane to Mars

NASA is gearing up for a dramatic Mars test flight of Ingenuity as soon as April 8.

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The Ingenuity helicopter sits exposed under the belly of the Perseverance rover on Mars.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA has traced the lineage of its innovative Ingenuity Mars helicopter all the way back to Orville and Wilbur Wright's historic first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. A tiny piece of fabric from the famous Wright aircraft is now in residence on the red planet, tucked under Ingenuity's solar panel.

In a NASA briefing on Tuesday, Ingenuity chief engineer Bob Balaram revealed the surprise package, which he described as being the size of a postage stamp. The unbleached muslin material, which comes from a wing covering, draws a connection between the first powered, controlled flight on Earth and what NASA hopes will be the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.

Ingenuity could take off as soon as April 8, but first it has to be delivered to its Martian airfield location by the Perseverance rover. It'll also go through an extensive series of checks before it attempts to take off and hover about 10 feet (3 meters) above the planet's surface.

The Perseverance rover is a couple of days away from the helicopter drop-off spot, a relatively flat and clear area in the Jezero Crater. Once Ingenuity is unfolded and set down on the ground, the rover will carefully move away to make sure the rotorcraft's solar panel can work to power its batteries and keep it warm through the cold night.  

The rotorcraft's mission is scheduled to last 31 Earth days, but the first night may be the most critical. "While getting deployed to the surface will be a big challenge, surviving that first night on Mars alone, without the rover protecting it and keeping it powered, will be an even bigger one," said Balaram.

This annotated image of Mars shows Ingenuity's airfield and flight zone in Jezero crater.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

The rover will set up shop at an overlook site to attempt to capture images and video of Ingenuity's short first flight. 

If the initial hovering exercise goes well, then NASA will try out longer and higher flights. The entire flight zone covers an area about 300 feet (90 meters) long, which gives Ingenuity plenty of room to stretch its blades if needed.

The 4-pound (1.8 kilogram) helicopter is a technology demonstration, an experiment that could show if this sort of flight is even possible under the tricky conditions of Mars. The planet's thin atmosphere and blustery winds make it a challenging place for Ingenuity to operate. If it works, it could open doors for new forms of exploration on other worlds.

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