NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars’ Jezero crater a month ago, is getting ready to deploy a mini-helicopter named Ingenuity. In its first flight of this kind on another planet, the four-pound, four-blade rotorcraft will test a new model of mobility that could transform the way we remotely explore other worlds.
The craft is currently attached to the belly of Perseverance; the rover dropped a protective shell and exposed Ingenuity to the bright Martian sunlight for the first time this weekend, one of the first steps toward setting the baby helicopter off on its debut flight. “Away goes the debris shield, and here’s our first look at the helicopter,” the rover’s Twitter account said on Sunday.
After dropping the debris shield, the rover will spend a couple of days driving itself to Ingenuity’s flight zone, which will be unveiled in a press conference on Tuesday by NASA officials. Ingenuity will be lowered to the ground, and Perseverance will make a move away to a safe distance of about 330 feet, leaving the helicopter to unlock its rotor blades and carry out a few spin tests. NASA expects the first test flights to come “no earlier than the first week of April,” a statement read.
The artificial boundaries of the flight zone, wherever it turns out to be, will be an oval patch of land that is 50-foot-long that Ingenuity will need to stay within during its flight tests. Perseverance will drop the helicopter off near one end of this flight zone, which the space engineers call the helipad.
As you can expect, deploying the first helicopter on Mars is no easy or cheap task. Ingenuity’s team of engineers at ‘NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’ had to account for a Martian atmosphere that is 100 times thinner than Earth’s, which means compared to the energy needed for Earth-bound helicopters to lift itself off the ground, Ingenuity will need to work much harder.
Ingenuity costs $85 million, a spacecraft designed keeping a lot of things in mind. One of which was to withstand an extremely turbulent ride to Mars. The violent rumbling during liftoff from Earth last year in July, to Perseverance’s seven-minute landing sequence through Mars’ atmosphere in February. Its design also has to comply with the international ‘1967 Outer Space Treaty, which forms the International Space Law. It required signatories to ensure their spacecraft don’t contaminate environments on other planets.
“This was a design challenge that straddled both the aircraft and spacecraft boundaries,” says Bob Balaram, Ingenuity’s chief engineer. The team’s biggest challenge, he said, was creating a craft that can spin its blades fast enough to generate thrust while keeping the overall design simple and lightweight — “otherwise whatever lift you generate doesn’t do any good if you’ve gotten too heavy in the process in the design.”
A rectangular solar panel installed above the craft’s four carbon fibre blades is what makes packing all that power in the craft’s four-pound body possible. According to a report by The Verge, “that panel also holds a tiny telecommunications device that can communicate with a node on Perseverance’s body called the Mars Helicopter Base Station, even from as far as nine football fields away.” The Base Station helps relay signals back to Earth.
A tissue box-sized fuselage is present beneath the blades; it houses flight sensors, batteries, two cameras, and mini “survival heaters” that protect Ingenuity from freezing during nighttime on Mars, where temperatures can go as cold as negative 130 degrees Fahrenheit (-90 degrees Celsius). “One of the two cameras has a 13-megapixel colour camera facing the horizon that will snap and send images to Perseverance mid-flight (the other camera has a 0.5-megapixel black-and-white sensor used for navigation).”
In all, within a short, 30-day window, Ingenuity will attempt to carry out five flight tests. If the tests work, similar helicopter tech could be used in other missions, to trek places where the general wheeled rovers used for outer space missions can’t reach, like caves, tunnels, or mountaintops. Ingenuity won’t fly again after its 30-day window, even if the tests are wildly successful, that’s because “we are being accommodated by a major flagship mission that’s got a huge, new astrobiology exploration ahead of it,” Balaram says.
After that 30-day window, no matter how things work out, Ingenuity will lie on the Martian surface for eternity, and Balaram says his team can celebrate several achievements they’ve already made.
“I think the main thing is, we’ve already achieved a lot of milestones just by having a design that could do all of these things, and we have had a successful test program so far,” he said. “Every step is something to celebrate because nothing is a given. It’s a fairly high-risk, high-reward type of activity. And tech demos are inherently a quite risky venture; they’re not a slam dunk.”