On Mars, Ingenuity prepares for historic first flight

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Ingenuity, the first helicopter sent to another planet, survived the mission’s riskiest seven minutes. Still installed in the “belly” of Perseverance, he is doing well, and is now preparing for a historic first flight.

You know, Perseverance, the rover of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, landed successfully on the Red Planet this Thursday, February 18, after a trip of nearly seven months in space. As a reminder, its main objective will be to search for traces of past life, and to set aside the most promising samples for a future return to Earth. However, the American agency also intends to take advantage of this mission by testing its small rotorcraft named Ingenuity.

The rotorcraft is doing well

The helicopter, still nestled in Perseverance’s belly, has since “woken up”, and even communicated with mission controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) overnight from Friday to Saturday, via Mars. Orbiter Recognition (MRO). A priori, everything was going very well, a let know the JPL. Following this positive report, the researchers then charged all six lithium-ion batteries of the rotorcraft at around 30% of its planned capacity this Saturday, to keep it “warm”.

It is also important to energize these batteries as so far Ingenuity has drawn its power from Perseverance. On the other hand, once “released” in nature, the rotorcraft will have to fend for itself by recharging itself thanks to small solar panels.

JPL plans to charge these batteries to 35% of their capacity in a few days, then repeat these charging sessions every week while awaiting deployment to the Martian surface.

To do this, researchers will need to deactivate the locking mechanism that holds Ingenuity in place. A cable cutter will then trigger, allowing the spring-loaded arm that holds the helicopter to begin rotating it to present it horizontally. A second pyrotechnic device will end the release of its four legs, then Ingenuity will land on the surface.

The Ingenuity rotorcraft. Credits: NASA / JPL-Caltech.

A historic first flight

Once the helicopter has landed on the surface, the JPL will give itself about thirty Martian days [31 jours terrestres] to operate a first test. Provided, of course, that Ingenuity survives its first Martian nights, during which temperatures can drop to minus 90 degrees Celsius.

As a reminder, this will be the first flight ever attempted on another planet. Ingenuity will then activate its blades at close to 2,900 revolutions per minute (ten times that of a helicopter on Earth, due to the lack of atmosphere on Mars). Then it will rise to a height of three meters maximum for about thirty seconds.

If successful, up to four more flights could then be attempted, each building on the success of the last. For these “bonus” flights, which should last about 90 seconds, NASA will attempt to assess Ingenuity’s performance over several hundred meters. Once these operations are completed, it will then be abandoned in place forever.

Illustration of Perseverance and Ingenuity (1.8 kg). Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

As you will have understood, the one and only objective of this small helicopter will be to succeed in flying. It could then pave the way for other machines of the same type which, in the long term, can be deployed for accompany future Martian explorers.

They could, for example, allow the transport or recovery of small payloads. They could also be used to locate safe crossing routes and to estimate the potential of several otherwise inaccessible exploration areas.

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