A 4-pound helicopter is preparing to take the first-ever flight on Mars but first, it has to survive the cold Martian night using its tiny solar panels.
The helicopter, nicknamed Ingenuity, arrived on the Red Planet on Feb. 18, hitching along for the ride with NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover. Currently, the little chopper is embedded in the belly of the rover awaiting deployment onto the Martian surface.
NASA engineers have been searching for just the right spot in Jezero Crater on Mars to plop the helicopter down and let it fly.
“We are looking for a flat environment where we can leave the helicopter and then an area for us to watch it from and take those videos,” Mars 2020 systems engineer Farah Alibay said earlier this month.
The space agency announced last week that it has found the area where Ingenuity will be released from the belly of the rover. During a media briefing Tuesday, Ingenuity and Perseverance team members revealed they are targeting around April 8 for the first flight.
Ingenuity chief pilot Håvard Grip, with NASA JPL, said soon after Perseverance landed the team realized they had a really good airfield “right in front of our noses.” The area is roughly a 33-by-33-foot flat plane.
“We really scoured this area. We looked at every little rock and pebble within that airfield and measured it, before we finally were comfortable saying, ‘Yes, this is, this is going to be our home base for the helicopter,’” Grip said showing a picture of the first Martian airfield. “So what you’re looking at there is in fact the first airfield on another planet, and we’re planning to deploy the helicopter right in the middle of that.”
Once Ingenuity’s team is ready to drop the helicopter, it will begin to slowly drop to the ground over 10 days.
Next, the rover will drive about 5 meters away from Ingenuity and that starts a critical time for the tiny chopper, Alibay said.
“As Ingenuity is vertical below the rover and we separate its last connection to the rover and that’s the connection that gives it energy that keeps it warm overnight,” she explained.
If the rover doesn’t drive away, providing sunlight for Ingenuity’s solar panels, the little helicopter may not survive. Based on models it could survive 25 hours without that power.
“If that drive doesn’t happen on that day, we as a team will have overnight to debug it to figure out what happened and drive off the next morning and Ingenuity will still be OK,” Alibay said. “We have a great team of engineers and I’m sure that whatever Mars throws at us we’ll be able to deal with.”
Timothy Canham, Mars Helicopter operations lead with NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said engineers had to specially design Ingenuity to fly on Mars. Although it’s the size of a small drone, it’s not the same as flying on Earth.
“Mars has a very thin atmosphere, so we need to design it to be very lightweight. The blades are very lightweight, they spin very quickly,” Canham said.
Ingenuity also has special software for autonomous flight.
“We basically give it a set of instructions, and the helicopter takes off and flies to the places we tell it to,” Canham said. “And we had an extensive test program here on Earth where we did many flights in a special chamber at JPL to prove that our software would work when we got to Mars.”
When it does fly, Perseverance won’t be too far away and able to capture the aerial moment using its cameras.
Ingenuity’s teams have compared the first powered flight by an aircraft and another planet to a “Wright Brothers moment.” The tiny helicopter is even carrying a piece of fabric about the size of a postage stamp from the original Wright Brothers flyer, said Ingenuity chief engineer J (Bob) Balaram.
“We are very proud to honor that experimental aircraft from long ago by carrying a small piece of fabric on Ingenuity,” Balaram said. “This fabric is from the original aircraft that flew at Kitty Hawk.”
If all goes well, Ingenuity will climb at a rate of 3 feet per second then hover at 10 feet in the air for up to 30 seconds before coming back for landing. It doesn’t sound like a huge accomplishment but the demonstration mission has implications for future space exploration.
“I can only imagine where we may be a decade or so from now, if we can scout and scientifically survey Mars from the air, with its thin atmosphere, we can certainly do the same in a number of other destinations across the solar system, like Titan or Venus,” NASA’s JPL planetary science director Bobby Braun said. “We can provide higher resolution measurements perhaps from orbit, fly farther, perhaps than a rover could traverse, or access sites that are difficult to reach, by these other means.”
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