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    How Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity Will Fly On Red Planet

    NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. / NASA/JPL-Caltech
    The Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity, is a small, autonomous aircraft which flew to Mars tucked into the belly of NASA's Perseverance rover that successfully landed on the planet Feb. 18, is set to make history with the first controlled, powered flight through another planet's atmosphere.  Its mission is experimental in nature and completely independent of the rover’s science mission. 

    The interplanetary helicopter was previously set to take off no sooner than April 8, but the little craft will now take flight no earlier than April 11, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, announced via Twitter Wednesday (March 31). 

    Mars helicopter, Ingenuity / NASA
    On March 21, Perseverance dropped a protective shield, which helped the helicopter to endure the perilous descent through Mars' atmosphere. It takes a bit of time for the helicopter to unfold and formally deploy for the flight. It takes about six sols, or six Mars days (one sol is equal to about 24 hours and 40 minutes on Earth, or a little more than one Earth day), NASA officials said in a statement

    "It [the helicopter] is stowed sideways, folded up and locked in place, so there's some reverse origami to do before I can set it down. First though, I'll be off to the designated 'helipad,' a couple days' drive from here," Perseverance team members wrote on Twitter March 21. 

    This graphic shows the activities NASA has planned for its Ingenuity Mars helicopter. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
    In the months after landing, the helicopter will be placed on the surface to test – for the first time ever – powered flight in the thin Martian air. Its performance during these experimental test flights will help inform decisions relating to considering small helicopters for future Mars missions, where they could perform in a support role as robotic scouts, surveying terrain from above. 

    From 8 April 2021, the world will witness the first flight of NASA’s Ingenuity, the Mars Helicopter. It will be the first history for mankind attempting to fly an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) on the red planet..

    When NASA’s Perseverance rover lands on February 18, 2021, it carried a passenger onboard: the first helicopter ever designed to fly in the thin Martian air. or as full standalone science craft carrying instrument payloads. Taking to the air would give scientists a new perspective on a region’s geology and even allow them to peer into areas that are too steep or slippery to send a rover. In the distant future, they might even help astronauts explore Mars. 

    Once fully and safely deployed on Mars' surface, the Ingenuity flight campaign will begin. The mission team hopes to get the drone flying within 30 sols (or about 31 Earth days) of this deployment. 

    Ingenuity is a technology demonstration. The first of its kind, these flights aim to prove that it is possible to fly a controlled, powered craft like the Mars Helicopter on another world. Ingenuity is set to make a few short flights, its only additional onboard technology being a camera. During these flights, Perseverance will also stand by and use its cameras to capture the events.

    The project is solely a demonstration of technology; it is not designed to support the Mars 2020/Perseverance mission, which is searching for signs of ancient life and collecting samples of rock and sediment in tubes for potential return to Earth by later missions.



    Key Objectives

    • Prove powered flight in the thin atmosphere of Mars. The Red Planet has lower gravity (about one-third that of Earth) but its atmosphere is just 1% as thick, making it much harder to generate lift. 
    • Demonstrate miniaturized flying technology. That requires shrinking down onboard computers, electronics and other parts so that the helicopter is light enough to take off. 
    • Operate autonomously. Ingenuity will use solar power to charge its batteries and rely on internal heaters to maintain operational temperatures during the cold Martian nights. After receiving commands from Earth relayed through the rover, each test flight is performed without real-time input from Mars Helicopter mission controllers.

    Program Management

    The Mars 2020 Project and Mars Helicopter Technology Demonstration are managed for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a division of Caltech in Southern California. At NASA Headquarters, David Lavery is the program executive for the Mars Helicopter. At JPL, MiMi Aung is the Mars Helicopter project manager and J. (Bob) Balaram is chief engineer.

    Characteristics

    • Weighs 4 pounds (1.8 kg)
    • Solar-powered and recharges on its own
    • Wireless communication system
    • Counter-rotating blades spin about 2,400 rpm
    • Equipped with computers, navigation sensors, and
    • Two cameras (one color and one black-and-white)

    Key Features

    • Height: about 19 inches (0.49 meters)
    • Rotor system span: about 4 feet (1.2 meters)

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