NASA Prepares to Deploy Mars Helicopter

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NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on Mars in February, carrying with it a suite of sensors and experiments that could help identify the remains of ancient life on the red planet. As if that wasn’t enough, Perseverance also has a flying drone. The Ingenuity helicopter is attached to the underside of the rover, but it won’t be for long.  NASA just took the first step toward getting it airborne. 

Ingenuity rode to Mars strapped to the underside of the rover. After landing the NASA team had to give the wheeled robot once-over, and everything has gone perfectly thus far. NASA finally paid some attention to the helicopter over the weekend. Ingenuity had a protective shield covering it, and now Perseverance has jettisoned the cover to reveal the folded-up helicopter (see above). 

Perseverance will take a few days to reach the area designated by NASA as a ‘helipad” for Ingenuity — a 33-by-33-foot (10-by-10-meter) region with few obstacles. Once there, the drone will unfold and drop onto the surface — you can see what that will look like below. However, it won’t happen quite so quickly. Since NASA only gets one shot at this, it’ll take six Martian days (known as sols) to unfold and deploy the helicopter. Right before release, the team will use the electrical connection to Curiosity to charge the helicopter’s batteries one last time. 

Ingenuity came along after Perseverance was already in production, so it doesn’t carry any mission-critical instruments. This technology demonstration could open up new paths to explore the planets, though. Unlike Perseverance, which is durable and built with radiation-hardened components, Ingenuity uses off-the-shelf parts like a Snapdragon ARM chip. It’s not designed to last through even a single winter on Mars, but the helicopter does have many times the computing power of Perseverance. 

Once Perseverance drops off the drone and moves to a safe distance, NASA will run the helicopter’s rotors at 2,537 rpm for one final check. The high rate of spin is necessary because Mars’ atmosphere is just one percent as dense as Earth’s. If everything looks good, Ingenuity will make a short flight, becoming the first flying machine on another planet. We won’t know until several hours later, when Perseverance beams back data to Earth, whether the flight was a success. NASA plans to fly the helicopter several times during its month-long test, and hopefully, get a look at Mars from a whole new angle.

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