A small helicopter built at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena is now sitting on the surface of Mars, and it just survived its first freezing Martian night unsheltered by the Perseverance rover that carried it to the Red Planet, mission managers said Monday.
And if all goes according to plan, the Ingenuity helicopter could make its historic first flight as early as Sunday.
The helicopter hitched a ride to Mars aboard the Perseverance rover that landed on Mars Feb. 18. It had been tucked away on the rover’s belly, but in an elaborate process over the past couple of weeks, Ingenuity was slowly rotated into position beneath the rover, then lowered onto the planet’s surface and un-tethered from Perseverance.
The rover then backed slowly away from the helicopter, leaving it fully exposed on the planet’s surface for the first time. That left the 4-pound craft alone to brave the Martian elements, most notably the minus-130-degree overnight temperatures, which could have frozen and damaged electrical components and batteries.
“This is the first time that Ingenuity has been on its own on the surface of Mars,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at JPL. “But we now have confirmation that we have the right insulation, the right heaters and enough energy in its battery to survive the cold night, which is a big win for the team. We’re excited to continue to prepare Ingenuity for its first flight test.”
Ingenuity’s flight is one of the most eagerly anticipated aspects of the Perseverance rover mission, even though it is strictly a demonstration project with no scientific instruments to conduct any actual research.
But if successful, Ingenuity will be the first helicopter to fly on another world, setting the stage for a potentially vast expansion of scientists’ ability to explore the surface of Mars, complementing the relatively slow-moving rovers on the planet’s surface.
Ingenuity is now standing on its four legs in the midst of a 33-foot-by-33-foot “airfield” chosen by mission managers for its lack of obstacles and clear landing area.
Over the next two Martian days — which last 24.6 hours — the craft will gather information about the performance of its power systems and temperature-control measures. On Wednesday, restraints that are holding the helicopters rotors together will be released, followed by several days of testing them and the motors that turn them.
On-board computers that control the helicopters flight autonomously will also be tested, and the solar-powered batteries will be monitored.
The pre-check process will include a powering up of the rotors, spinning them at their full speed of 2,537 rpm.
Once everything checks out mechanically, weather conditions on the planet’s surface will dictate the exact timing of the helicopter’s first liftoff, but JPL officials said that barring any technical issues, they hope to make the historic first flight as early as Sunday night.
The first flight will be brief, with no planned forward movement. The helicopter is expected to make a roughly three-second climb to an altitude of 10 feet, where it will hover for 30 seconds before lowering back to the planet’s surface — with the Perseverance rover’s cameras watching closely.
When images from those cameras are received back at JPL, along with basic data collected by the helicopter, mission managers will be able to gauge the success of the test, and will then determine how to proceed with additional flights.
Flying on another planet is vastly different than flying on Earth, with mission managers noting that gravity on Mars is about one-third of Earth’s, while the atmosphere on the surface is about 1% as dense as that on Earth.
Ingenuity, while making its historic flight, will be carrying a bit of Earth history with it. Wrapped on a cable beneath the helicopter’s solar panel is a small swatch of fabric that covered the wings of the plane that made the first-ever flight on Earth — Orville and Wilbur Wright’s “Flyer” — which pioneered air travel in 1903.