On April 3, the Mars Ingenuity helicopter was removed from its carbon fiber shield on the belly of the Perseverance rover. On Sunday April 11th, it will make its first attempt at powered, controlled flight and be the first aircraft to operate on another planet. Meanwhile, Ingenuity reached another major milestone when it survived its first full night on the Martian surface.
Surviving that first night was no easy task for the 1.8 kg rotary wing aircraft. Around the Octavia E. Butler Landing – where the Perseverance Rover is stationed in the Jezero Crater – night temperatures can drop as low as -90 ° C (-130 ° F). These conditions can cause unprotected electronics to freeze and crack and damage the on-board batteries, which must remain operational overnight.
Enduring a Martian night is just one of the many challenges Ingenuity and his perseverance as a parenting mission face. Complicating the situation, however, is the fact that Ingenuity’s design had to be small enough to fit on board the rover and light enough to handle the thin Martian atmosphere (which is less than 1% the atmospheric pressure of Earth) to fly.
Ingenuity showed through an evening on Mars that it has what it takes to get to the surface. As MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, recently said in a NASA press release:
“This is the first time Ingenuity has been alone on the surface of Mars. But we now have confirmation that we have the right insulation, the right heaters and enough energy in the battery to make it through the cold night, which is a huge win for the team. We look forward to continuing to prepare Ingenuity for the first flight test. “
Before Ingenuity was removed from Perseverance’s belly, it received power from the rover. After it unfolded its four legs and was alone, Perseverance was instructed to move away so Ingenuity could draw power from its solar panels (which were mounted on its rotors). As soon as the flight tests begin, Perseverance acts as a communication relay between Ingenuity and Earth and monitors its flights from the “Van Zyl Overlook”.
These flights are the sole scientific target of Ingenuity, a technology demonstration designed to investigate whether aerial missions can be conducted in the thin Martian atmosphere and information gathered from a wider variety of locations. Ingenuity will complete its testing within 30 Mars days (sols), which is approximately 30 days and 18 hours on Earth. As soon as this is done, Perseverance moves on to the next operating phase.
Low-resolution view of the floor of Jezero Crater and part of two wheels of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover, captured by the Ingenuity Mars helicopter. The picture was taken on April 3, 2021. NASA / JPL-Caltech
Teddy Tzanetos, deputy director of operations for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at JPL, said next month will be a very lucrative time for the mission. “Our 30 sol test plan contains exciting milestones,” he said. “Whatever the future holds, we will collect all flight data that we can within that period.”
Over the next two days, Ingenuity will be collecting data on its thermal control and power systems to see how well they are performing in the Martian environment. This is crucial as the helicopter stands alone and can no longer rely on the Perseverance Rover for thermal protection. This data is used to optimize Ingenuity’s thermal control system so that it continues to withstand the extremely cold Martian nights and is operational during the flight season.
So far, Perseverance has succeeded in providing the first of the many images of the helicopter on the surface of Mars (see above) and the first image that Ingenuity took of the surface itself (see above). The first image was captured by Perseverance’s rear-left Hazard Avoidance camera, which shows Ingenuity blades still stacked on top of one another, with four foot pads planted against the surface.
If you look to the right of the helicopter, you can see marks left by Perseverance’s wheel after it moved away to be in direct sunlight. The ingenuity remains deployed on the surface until the mission controllers have collected data on the helicopter’s systems, all pre-flight checks are completed, and both it and the rover are positioned for the flight test.
Artist’s impression of the Mars Ingenuity helicopter flying from the Perseverance rover. Photo credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
The flight date may be postponed as needed, but NASA hopes to start flight tests on Sunday, April 11th at the earliest. This first controlled flight will be shared via a live stream on Monday, April 12th, starting at approximately 3:30 a.m. EDT (12:30 p.m. PDT). You can follow the live coverage on NASA television, in the NASA app, on several of the agency’s social media platforms (e.g. on JPL’s YouTube and Facebook channels) and on the agency’s website.
A preflight briefing will air on Friday, April 9th at 1:00 p.m. EDT (10:00 a.m. PDT) containing the latest information on the operation of the helicopter and anticipated events during its maiden flight. NASA will host a panel discussion for students and members of the public on Thursday, April 8th at 1:00 p.m. EDT (10:00 a.m. PDT), letting them know what to expect and where to find resources before they fly are located .
Further reading: NASA, Twitter