NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance is scheduled to launch in the coming weeks, the agency’s latest effort to search for life on the Red Planet.
But the rover is not traveling to Mars alone.
Onboard the mission, for the first time ever, is a small “Mars Helicopter” – which, if successful, will become the first human vehicle to ever take-off from the surface and fly in the Martian skies.
Perseverance is scheduled to launch to Mars any time from July 22 to August 11. Regardless of the launch date, it will land on Mars on February 18, 2021 in an exciting region known as Jezero Crater, thought to be an ancient river delta. Most Popular In: Science
Before the primary science phase of the mission begins, however, the rover will deploy its flying companion on the surface. Called Ingenuity, the small vehicle – just 0.5 meters tall – is equipped with two counter-rotating blades that will enable it to hover in the air.
It will be deployed on the Martian surface at some point in the first 90 days of the mission. A team back on the ground will then command the helicopter to perform some checks, before attempting a first flight.
Test flights have already been conducted on Earth in simulated Mars conditions, including its weaker gravity, just a third that of Earth.
Ultimately, however, no one is quite sure how well Ingenuity will perform. If all goes as planned, it should be able to fly up to ten meters above the ground, over distances of up to 300 meters, and on flights lasting up to 90 seconds.
It will be capable of one flight per day, with 30 days in total allocated for its mission. While it does have camerad on board and will take images, this is mostly a technology demonstration to see if rotorcraft could be useful for future missions to Mars, perhaps even human missions.
Below, Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, explains how the mission will work, and what the team back on Earth hopes to learn.
What is the Mars Helicopter?
“The Mars Helicopter, [called] Ingenuity, is an autonomous rotorcraft designed to fly in the very thin atmosphere of Mars. The atmospheric density at Mars compared to Earth is less than one percent. So this vehicle is designed to maximize lift, and then have onboard autonomous sensing and control. This will be the very first attempt of a rotorcraft flight on Mars.”
How much does it weigh?
“You have the solar panel on top, the rotor system of counter-rotating blades, their motors, the fuselage, batteries, circuit boards, and the landing gear – the legs. All of that together, from the bottom to the top, is just a hair under 1.8 kilograms.”
What are the blades made of?
“They are a foam core in the middle, and then a carbon fibre layer.”
How will Ingenuity be deployed on Mars?
“The helicopter is actually lying sideways attached to the bottom of the [rover]. The rover will drive around until we get to the perfect spot for helicopter experiments. When the time comes for deployment, the legs get released, and there’s a motor that will rotate the helicopter from horizontal to vertical. Then it’ll drop it to the ground, it’s about a five-inch drop. Then the rover drives away, our solar panel becomes exposed to the Sun, and we will start charging on our own.”
How long will the deployment take?
“The actual activity is a few minutes. But it will take a few days, because there will be visual checks that the rover team will want to do before proceeding to the next step. We really need to be very sure of each step.”
Once the rover drives away, to a distance of 100 meters, what happens next?
“Then our 30-day experimental window opens. The first thing is checking our solar panel [is working]. The next thing is [checking] the communications between the helicopter and [the rover]. Then the next big check mark is survival through the first night. After that, we turn our attention towards flight. Then we’ll start to wiggle the blades, do a slow spin, then a full-speed spin without taking off. Then we will go for the first flight.”
Will Perseverance be watching the helicopter?
“Yes, the rover operations team will be pointing the cameras and taking pictures. At this point it’s not determined if we will have video capability.”
How long will these checks take?
“[Approximately] the first six Martian days will be spent checking out. We’re planning for our first flight to be on that sixth or seventh day.”
What will happen on the first flight?
“The first flight will go up to about three meters, hover, and do a modest lateral flight a few meters to the side, come back to the center, and land. That first flight is extraordinarily important. It will totally confirm the majority of all our models of how the helicopter flies with assumptions we have made for Mars.”
What will happen on subsequent flights?
“We’re going to be flying higher and then further and further out, taking bolder and bolder flights where we go to higher altitudes. We have a color camera that’s going to take a few pictures, but our primary focus is on how well this vehicles flies. We can take pictures of the [Martian] horizon, the terrain, and we definitely would like to take a picture of the rover.”
How does each flight work? The helicopter flies autonomously without input, but how does it decide where to go?
“It’s waypoint-driven. We will take black and white images that are key to determine where we were. And then with the colour pictures, and also pictures from the rover, we will confirm where we flew.”
Is there scope for taking more risks on later flights?
“The team is focused on the first flight and really confirming our models. But definitely we can be much bolder and more exciting, and take incrementally riskier flights, once we have the demonstration flights in our hands.”