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NASA is about to land the first tiny helicopter on Mars

Ingenuity will test fly in thin atmosphere with 90-second flights

Members of the NASA Mars Helicopter team inspect Ingenuity, inside the Space Simulator, a 25-foot-wide vacuum chamber at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, on Feb. 1, 2019. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech) (WKMG 2021)

Not only will NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover be touching down on the red planet this Thursday, but it also brought along a little friend, stored under its belly: the first ever helicopter to visit Mars.

Nicknamed Ingenuity, the 4-pound tiny chopper is actually a test mission for NASA. It will provide an important technology demonstration proving if a future, more expansive mission using similar hardware would work.

Following the 300-million-mile journey and frightful landing on Mars, Ingenuity will be released from the rover’s under carriage for a short term-mission unrelated to its ride Perseverance.

The Mars Helicopter Delivery System holds the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter to the underside of Perseverance. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech) (NASA 2021)

The tiny helicopter has four carbon-fiber blades that spin around 2,400 rpm, way faster than choppers here in Earth, which spin between 225 and 500 depending on the size of the flight vehicle. The tiny chopper also has solar cells, lithium-ion batteries, and other components, according to NASA.

If it goes well, Ingenuity will complete the first powered flight on another planet sometime this spring and hopefully repeat it four more times within 30 Martian days, the equivalent of 31 days on Earth.

“The Ingenuity Mars helicopter has been fully tested, as much as we can on Earth, we have test flown it and we have tested for environment and next is time to demonstrate proof and learn how it operates at Mars,” NASA JPL Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung said.

As a technology demonstration mission, each milestone for the helicopter will mark a win for the team behind Ingenuity.

The first accomplishment was surviving being rocketed into space. Teams already know Ingenuity survived the July 2020 launch from Cape Canaveral because they were able to perform a power recharge of the chopper post-liftoff.

As long as Perseverance survives the landing, the next milestone for Ingenuity will be deploying onto the surface of Mars from the rover’s belly. The helicopter deploy takes about 10 days to drop down onto Mars, according to Aung.

“The moment that drop happens is the moment that Ingenuity has to start operating on its own in a standalone fashion,” Aung.

It must survive the cold overnight temperatures and keep itself charged using solar panels powered by the sun.

Aung said “this little four pounder” has to survive -130 degree temperatures during the Martian night.

Watch a NASA simulation of what Ingenuity’s flight on Mars could look like below:

Flying on Mars offers its own challenges as the red planet has gravity about 1/3 that of Earth but an atmosphere only 1% that of Earth, which makes it harder to fly.

For the first flight, the rover will be about 100 meters away “watching Ingenuity,” Aung said, as the helicopter flies to about 3 meters hovering for around 20 seconds.

“It will be true, Wright brothers moment, but on another planet,” Aung said of the first flight on Mars.

Eventually, Ingenuity will get up to 15 feet and cover about 160 feet each time. From take off and landing, engineers will try to make each trip no longer than 90 seconds.

Even though it’s an independent mission from the rover, it will never fly farther than .6 miles from the NASA robot because it needs Perseverance to communicate back to Earth.

NASA said if Ingenuity’s test mission goes well similar helicopters could be used to scout locations on Mars too dangerous for a rover and help future astronauts when they first arrive on the red planet.

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