In February, NASA’s latest martian rover, Perseverance, landed on the Red Planet after nearly seven-months of spacefaring. Now that Percy has had time to settle in, the vehicle is ready to start exploring our cosmic neighbor. On Tuesday, NASA released an update on the mission and Ingenuity; a dual-rotor helicopter strapped to the rover’s belly. Turns out, the rotorcraft’s maiden Martian flight could be right around the corner.
As part of Tuesday’s announcement, NASA said the team was targeting “the first attempt at powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet” no earlier than April 8. For the time being, the space agency said Ingenuity remains affixed to Percy’s belly, albeit no longer protected by the debris shield, which was deployed on Sunday. Perseverance is currently en route to its “airfield” where this flight attempt is set to take place, NASA said.
“When NASA’s Sojourner rover landed on Mars in 1997, it proved that roving the Red Planet was possible and completely redefined our approach to how we explore Mars. Similarly, we want to learn about the potential Ingenuity has for the future of science research,” said Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters.
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A NASA quick facts page outlining Ingenuity’s missions, says the Ingenuity’s “main job” will be a “technology demonstration” testing the “the first powered flight on Mars” with a length of the mission described as “one or more flights within 30 days.”
During this initial flight, NASA says the craft will “take off a few feet from the ground” before hovering for approximately 20 to 30 seconds and then land. After this first flight, more “experimental flights” involving “incrementally” farther distances and increased altitudes will be attempted, according to the space agency.
SEE: Photos: Mars helicopter set to take its maiden flight on the Red Planet (TechRepublic)
“Aptly named, Ingenuity is a technology demonstration that aims to be the first powered flight on another world and, if successful, could further expand our horizons and broaden the scope of what is possible with Mars exploration,” Glaze said.
Prior to Ingenuity’s deployment for this initial test flight, NASA said the helicopter will need to be located “squarely in the middle” of a Martian “airfield,” which was selected due to its “flatness and lack of obstructions.” Rover and helicopter teams will first confirm the chopper is located in the desired location before initiating the “elaborate” deployment process which will take approximately six Martian sols, or a little more than six Earth days, the release said.
“As with everything with the helicopter, this type of deployment has never been done before,” said Farah Alibay, Mars Helicopter integration lead for the Perseverance rover. “Once we start the deployment there is no turning back.”
Over the course of these six sols, the teams will “activate a bolt-breaking device” to unlock the helicopter and “fire a cable-cutting pyrotechnic device” so the mechanical arm holding the helicopter can rotate the craft from its current position, NASA said.
Next, Ingenuity will be vertical positioning with its four legs extended or snapped into place en route to the craft’s eventual position on the Martian surface, NASA said, and an imager on board will take a series of “confirmation shots” as the rotorcraft is unfolded into its “flight configuration.”
SEE: Everything you need to know about Perseverance and the mission (TechRepublic)
In the craft’s final position, Ingenuity will hang a mere five inches above the ground tethered to the rover via a “couple dozen tiny electrical contacts” and this will be the last chance for the Perseverance to charge Ingenuity’s onboard batteries, NASA said.
“All activities are closely coordinated, irreversible, and dependent on each other. If there is even a hint that something isn’t going as expected, we may decide to hold off for a sol or more until we have a better idea what is going on,” Alibay said.
Mars 2020 mission overview
The Mars 2020 mission with the Perseverance rover and helicopter in tow launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on July 30, 2020, and landed in the Martian Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021. NASA estimates the Perseverance Rover mission duration to last one Martian year which is the equivalent of approximately 687 Earth days.
The rover will collect samples across the Martian surface during this mission timeline and cache rock and sediment samples which will be collected on a yet-to-be-determined future space mission. The rover will rove the Martian surface in search of evidence of ancient microbial life and testing the production of oxygen in preparation for future crewed Martian missions.