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NASA is preparing to launch its Ingenuity Helicopter on Mars. Ingenuity is a demo to test the first powered flight on another planet. NASA is targeting no earlier than April 8 for the launch. But before that happens, the helicopter must hit a series of milestones.
Ingenuity rode to Mars attached to the belly of the Perseverance rover, which landed on the Red Planet on February 18. Ingenuity is still attached to the belly of the rover. But the graphite composite debris shield that protected Ingenuity during descent and landing was released from the rover on March 21, revealing the aerial vehicle for the first time on Mars. NASA this week released the photo atop this page.
The rover will be traveling for the next couple of days to the “airfield” where Ingenuity will attempt to fly. Once deployed, Ingenuity will have 30 Martian days, or sols, (31 Earth days) to conduct its test flight campaign.
Deploying Ingenuity a complex process
But before Ingenuity can take off, it must be squarely in the middle of the airfield, which is a 33-by-33-foot (10-by-10-meter) patch of Martian real estate NASA chose because of its flatness and lack of obstructions. Once the helicopter and rover teams confirm Perseverance is situated exactly where they want it to be inside the airfield, the elaborate process to deploy the helicopter on the surface of Mars begins.
“As with everything with the helicopter, this type of deployment has never been done before,” said Farah Alibay, Mars Helicopter integration lead for the Perseverance rover. “Once we start the deployment there is no turning back. All activities are closely coordinated, irreversible, and dependent on each other. If there is even a hint that something isn’t going as expected, we may decide to hold off for a sol or more until we have a better idea of what is going on.”
NASA said Ingenuity’s deployment process will take about six sols (six days, four hours on Earth). Here is how NASA breaks down the process:
“On the first sol, the team on Earth will activate a bolt-breaking device, releasing a locking mechanism that helped hold the helicopter firmly against the rover’s belly during launch and Mars landing. The following sol, they will fire a cable-cutting pyrotechnic device, enabling the mechanized arm that holds Ingenuity to begin rotating the helicopter out of its horizontal position. This is also when the rotorcraft will extend two of its four landing legs.
“During the third sol of the deployment sequence, a small electric motor will finish rotating Ingenuity until it latches, bringing the helicopter completely vertical. During the fourth sol, the final two landing legs will snap into position. On each of those four sols, the Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering (WATSON) imager will take confirmation shots of Ingenuity as it incrementally unfolds into its flight configuration. In its final position, the helicopter will hang suspended at about 5 inches (13 centimeters) over the Martian surface. At that point, only a single bolt and a couple dozen tiny electrical contacts will connect the helicopter to Perseverance. On the fifth sol of deployment, the team will use the final opportunity to utilize Perseverance as a power source and charge Ingenuity’s six battery cells.
“On the sixth and final scheduled sol of this deployment phase, the team will need to confirm three things: that Ingenuity’s four legs are firmly on the surface of Jezero Crater, that the rover did, indeed, drive about 16 feet (about 5 meters) away, and that both helicopter and rover are communicating via their onboard radios. This milestone also initiates the 30-sol clock during which time all preflight checks and flight tests must take place.”
“Once we cut the cord with Perseverance and drop those final five inches to the surface, we want to have our big friend drive away as quickly as possible so we can get the Sun’s rays on our solar panel and begin recharging our batteries,” said Bob Balaram, Mars Helicopter chief engineer at JPL.
Taking flight on Mars
So what makes it hard for a helicopter to fly on Mars? For one thing, Mars’ thin atmosphere makes it difficult to achieve enough lift. Because the Mars atmosphere is 99% less dense than Earth’s, Ingenuity has to be light, with rotor blades that are much larger and spin much faster than what would be required for a helicopter of Ingenuity’s mass on Earth. It weighs just 4 pounds.
Once the team is ready to attempt the first flight, Perseverance will receive and relay to Ingenuity the final flight instructions from JPL mission controllers. Several factors will determine the precise time for the flight, including modeling of local wind patterns plus measurements taken by the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) aboard Perseverance.
The plan is for Ingenuity to run its rotors to 2,537 rpm and, if all final self-checks look good, lift off. After climbing at a rate of about 3 feet per second (1 meter per second), the 4-pound helicopter will hover at 10 feet (3 meters) above the surface for up to 30 seconds. Then, the Mars Helicopter will descend and touch back down on the Martian surface.
Several hours after the first flight has occurred, the plan is for Perseverance to downlink Ingenuity’s first set of engineering data and, possibly, images and video from the rover’s Navigation Cameras and Mastcam-Z. From the data downlinked that first evening after the flight, the Mars Helicopter team expects to be able to determine if their first attempt to fly at Mars was a success.
If the helicopter succeeds in its first flight, the Ingenuity team will attempt up to four other test flights within a 30-Martian-day window.
“Mars is hard,” said MiMi Aung, project manager for Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at JPL. “Our plan is to work whatever the Red Planet throws at us the very same way we handled every challenge we’ve faced over the past six years – together, with tenacity and a lot of hard work, and a little Ingenuity.”
Paying homage to Wright brothers
NASA has said it traced the lineage of Ingenuity back to the historic first flight Orville and Wilbur Wright undertook at Kitty Hawk on Dec. 17, 1903. Orville covered 120 feet in 12 seconds during the first flight. The Wright brothers made four flights that day, each longer than the last.
A small amount of the material that covered the wing of the aircraft, Flyer 1, during the first flight was flown to Mars aboard Ingenuity. An insulative tape was used to wrap the small swatch of fabric around a cable located underneath the helicopter’s solar panel.
The Wrights had been using the same type of material – an unbleached muslin called “Pride of the West” – to cover their glider and aircraft wings since 1901. A different piece of the material, along with a small splinter of wood, from the Flyer 1 was flown to the Moon and back aboard Apollo 11.
Editor’s Note: Following along The Robot Report’s complete coverage of the Mars 2020 Mission.