Ingenuity Helicopter touched down on Mars

Ingenuity Helicopter

NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover took this picture of the Ingenuity Helicopter on Apr. 4, 2021. | Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech

NASA is one step closer to achieving the first flight on another planet. The Ingenuity Helicopter safely touched down on Mars over the weekend. It was attached to the belly of the Perseverance rover, which landed on the Red Planet on February 18.

The photo atop the page, which was taken by Perseverance, shows Ingenuity a short distance away from the rover.

While attached to Perseverance, Ingenuity feed off the rover’s nuclear-powered system to charge itself and stay warm. Ingenuity will now draw power from the sun via its solar panels. But the big challenge now is to ensure Ingenuity survives the freezing cold nights on Mars, where temperatures can go as low as -130 degrees Fahrenheit. Ingenuity has a built-in heater, but we’ll see if it’s up to the task.

Q&A: Ingenuity Mars Helicopter chief engineer Bob Balaram

“This heater keeps the interior at about 45 degrees F through the bitter cold of the Martian night, where temperatures can drop to as low as -130 F (minus 90 degrees Celsius),” said NASA’s Bob Balaram, chief engineer for the Mars Helicopter project. “That comfortably protects key components such as the battery and some of the sensitive electronics from harm at very cold temperatures.”

Ingenuity is expected to make its first flight on April 11, with the data from that test reaching Earth on April 12. The $85 million drone is the first helicopter ever sent to another world and is designed to test technologies for future flying vehicles on other planets. Ingenuity carries two cameras to document its flights, which will also be observed by the Perseverance rover.

“The team will check the temperatures and the battery recharge performance over the next couple of days,” Balaram said. “If it all looks good, then it’s onto the next steps: unlocking the rotor blades, and testing out all the motors and sensors.”

For its first flight, Ingenuity will hover just a few feet from the ground for about 20-30 seconds before landing. If successful, the team will then attempt up to four other tests within a month’s time frame, each gradually pushing the limits of distance and altitude, like a baby bird learning to fly.

Flight controllers at JPL won’t be able to control Ingenuity while it’s actually flying. Due to significant communication delays, commands will be sent in advance of flights, and the team won’t know how the flight went until it’s over. Ingenuity will be able to make its own decisions about how to fly and keep itself warm.

Balaram was recently featured on NASA’s Small Steps, Giant Leaps podcast describing what it took to develop the helicopter and what to expect during the experimental flights. You can listen to the full podcast below.

Editor’s Note: Following along The Robot Report’s complete coverage of the Mars 2020 Mission.

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