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Ingenuity Mars helicopter prepares for the first flight on another planet

Humanity’s first Wright Brothers moment on another planet will happen in April. The Ingenuity Mars helicopter will attempt the first powered flight on Mars no earlier than April 8, according to NASA.

It’s fitting that the mission, an experimental companion to the Perseverance rover, is carrying a piece of history. A postage stamp-size piece of muslin fabric that covered one of the wings from the Wright Brothers’ Flyer is attached to a cable beneath the helicopter’s solar panel.

The first powered, controlled flight on Earth took place near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, when Orville and Wilbur Wright flew the Flyer 120 feet for 12 seconds in December 1903.

“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 NASA’s Planetary Science Division, in a statement.

However, before this historic flight on Mars, Ingenuity has to complete a series of steps that will occur over the next couple of weeks — and they will test the 4-pound rotorcraft’s ability to survive the harsh conditions of Mars without the help of Perseverance.

For now, Ingenuity remains safely tucked up beneath the rover and attached to the rover’s power supply. The debris shield, which protected the helicopter during the February landing of the rover on Mars, was released March 21.

The rover is currently driving to the nearby 33-by-33-foot (10-by-10-meter) airfield that Ingenuity’s team has chosen to test the helicopter’s flight. The site has been named in honor of Jakob van Zyl, former director for solar system exploration and associate director for project formulation and strategy at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. He died in August 2020.

After depositing Ingenuity on the surface, which is nice and flat, Perseverance will carefully back away and take pictures of the helicopter. While it sounds simple, this process will take just over six days. Commands sent from teams on Earth will help release the locking mechanism holding the helicopter against the rover’s belly.

A cable-cutting pyrotechnic device will fire, which will enable an arm holding Ingenuity to rotate the helicopter, which is currently horizontal.

Ingenuity will follow a series of commands to unfold two of its landing legs.

An electric motor will complete the rotation of the helicopter until it’s vertical and the other two landing legs will unfold.

“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, in a statement. “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 (day) or more until we have a better idea what is going on.”

The final steps of deployment include suspending the helicopter 5 inches over the Martian surface during a final charging session while Ingenuity is still connected to the rover.

“Once we cut the cord with Perseverance and drop those final five inches to the surface, we want to have our big friend drive away as quickly as possible so we can get the Sun’s rays on our solar panel and begin recharging our batteries,” said Bob Balaram, Mars helicopter chief engineer at JPL, in a statement.

Then, the team will confirm Ingenuity is firmly sitting on the surface of Mars and communicating.

Once it’s on the Martian surface, the helicopter will do some test wiggles and spins of the rotor blades. It will have to charge itself using its solar panel and withstand the freezing Martian nights, which can dip to negative 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

Teams will be closely monitoring the weather on Mars, including the wind and measurements taken by the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer instrument on the rover, which could impact the flight.

Ingenuity will have 31 days to conduct its series of test flights, which could include up to five depending on the success of the first one. The first flight involves the helicopter lifting about 10 feet off the ground and hovering for about 30 seconds before landing. Subsequent flights will last longer.

Within hours of the first flight, data will be sent back from Ingenuity, as well as the rover’s cameras and microphones that will watch and record the flight, to determine if it was successful.

Over the next two days, images from the helicopter’s cameras will also be sent back. Together, the data and images will help Ingenuity’s team plan the next flights.

“Ingenuity is an experimental engineering flight test — we want to see if we can fly at Mars,” said MiMi Aung, project manager for Ingenuity Mars helicopter at JPL. “We are confident that all the engineering data we want to obtain both on the surface of Mars and aloft can be done within this 30-sol window.”

Sols are Martian days, which last slightly longer than Earth days.

The team has stressed that the helicopter is an experiment and each step will be approached with deliberation, which makes things more flexible concerning dates and milestones. And, of course, it all depends on Ingenuity surviving the milestones leading up to flight.

Flight on Mars is made more difficult by the red planet’s thin atmosphere, which is just 1% the density of Earth’s at the surface. Mars also receives half the solar energy Earth does during the daytime.

This is why Ingenuity was designed to be small and lightweight — and built with internal heaters to survive frigid nights.

“Every step we have taken since this journey began six years ago has been uncharted territory in the history of aircraft,” Balaram said of Ingenuity.”And while getting deployed to the surface will be a big challenge, surviving that first night on Mars alone, without the rover protecting it and keeping it powered, will be an even bigger one.”

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