When NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars last month, it did not arrive alone.
Hidden under the belly of the buggy, a helicopter named Ingenuity had hitchhiked on the red planet. Its mission: to carry out the first powered flight on another world.
Immediately after landing, NASA began to search for an airfield for the helicopter. The area had to be flat, free of obstacles, and located within a larger flight area.
Those responsible for returning to Earth searched satellite images and photos taken by Perseverance to find a suitable location.
“We started to realize that we could have a really good airfield right in front of our noses,” Ingenuity chief pilot Håvard Grip said at a press conference on Tuesday.
They identified an area 10 by 10 meters just north of where Perseverance landed in Jezero Crater, which scientists say was once inundated with water and was home to an ancient river delta.
Once the rover started driving, the team began collecting more images from their navigation cameras to measure every boulder and pebble on the ground.
They also forecast the weather on Mars to predict when Ingenuity can safely take off.
[Read: Mars rover captures mysterious ‘scratching noise’ during drive across the red planet]
They estimate that the first flight will take place no earlier than April 8, although it can move for a few days in either direction. The helicopter will benefit from a total of 30 Martian days (31 Earth days) for its test flight campaign.
On the first flight, Ingenuity will climb to an altitude of three meters, hover for approximately 30 seconds, make a turn, and then descend to the surface. If this trip is successful, the team will attempt other trips of greater distances and altitudes.
The helicopter can take about 30 photos per second. The images will be analyzed alongside measurements from the sensors to make tiny adjustments that keep ingenuity on course and safe from disturbances such as winds.
Videos and photos will be taken every step of the way, but it will take some time for them to get back to Earth. NASA expects to have the first images within days of the first flight.
Perseverance already leads to the deployment zone. When it arrives in the next few days, it will gradually drop the ingenuity on the ground, before moving away to a point of view, leaving the helicopter to collect solar energy for its batteries.
It will need to stay warm during extremely cold Martian nights, which can reach temperatures of minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius). NASA models suggest the batteries will only last 25 hours without solar panels in helicopters being exposed to the sun.
“While deploying to the surface will be a big challenge, surviving that first night on Mars alone, without the rover protecting it and keeping it energized, will be even greater,” said Bob Balaram, chief engineer. from Ingenuity.
The next challenge will be take off. The surface gravity on Mars is only about 38% of that of Earth, but its atmosphere is only 1% thick, making it difficult to generate lift. Ingenuity weighs just 1.8 kilograms, but NASA wind tunnel tests suggest it will have enough power to fly.
Once in the air, the helicopter will offer a new perspective on the geology of the Red Planet. But its main goal is to test the potential to fly to other worlds.
“If we can scientifically locate and study Mars from the air, with its weak atmosphere, we can certainly do the same in a number of other destinations across the solar system, like Titan or Venus,” Balaram said.
The flights would also expand the scope of what is possible on Mars. In the future, they might even help astronauts explore the Red Planet.
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