The American rover Perseverance has just released the anti-debris shield responsible for protecting its companion Ingenuity during the landing. According to NASA, a first flight could be attempted in April.
Ingenuity is a technology demonstration side mission – a project that seeks to test a new capability for the first time, with limited scope. In this case here: that of flying on Mars.
It will not be an easy task. The Martian atmosphere is indeed very sparse (about 1% of the density of our atmosphere on Earth). As a result, Ingenuity was designed to be light (just 1.8kg), with rotor blades capable of spinning much faster than what would be needed on Earth with a similar helicopter.
On the other hand, Martian gravity is about a third of that of Earth. This means that a little more mass can be lifted with a given rotational speed.
Since leaving Earth in July 2020, Ingenuity has been tucked under Perseverance’s belly, sheltered by a hull designed to protect it from debris raised during landing. This protective shield, the engineers of the mission have just detached. Thus begins the process of delivering the craft safely to the surface of the planet.
A first flight probably in April
A few days ago, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory declared that it had found the ideal “aerodrome” for this first test flight. This is an area of 10 by 10 meters in which all the stones (or almost) are less than five centimeters in height. The surface must also be relatively flat (maximum slope 4 degrees).
Once Perseverance inside this zone (at the earliest during the first week of April), the researchers will deactivate the mechanism lock that holds Ingenuity in place. Once the helicopter has landed on the surface, the JPL will give itself a few days to carry out a first test. The rotorcraft will then activate its blades at close to 2,900 revolutions per minute, before rising (we hope) to a height of about three meters for thirty seconds.
During this time, Perseverance will take a good distance and attempt to document (sounds and images) the event.
If successful, up to four additional flights could then be attempted during about 90 seconds and over several hundred meters. Here’s what those tests might look like:
Once these operations are completed, Ingenuity will then be abandoned in place forever, paving the way for other flying vehicles that could integrate future missions to Mars. These devices could offer a unique perspective to astronauts by spotting crossing routes otherwise inaccessible by rovers and other landers. They could also allow the transport or recovery of small payloads.