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Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Ingenuity is getting ready for first powered flight on Mars

After about one week of preparations, the deployment process to release the helicopter drone Ingenuity from rover Perseverance is now complete and the small rotorcraft sits on the surface of Mars. Ingenuity, which travelled to Mars attached to the belly of NASA’s newest rover Perseverance, soon will write history by attempting the first powered flight on another planet. However before the historic flight can occur, the team behind the probe had to complete a multi-step process to detach and prepare Ingenuity.

Preparing Ingenuity

The process of readying Ingenuity for the first powered flight on Mars began shortly after Perseverance landed, by searching for a flat region in the Jezero Crater, which could serve as the helicopter’s airfield. After a potential spot was found, the rover jettisoned the debris shield, which protected Ingenuity during landing. Then the controllers on Earth began a six day long process to deploy the rotorcraft, beginning with the release of the locking mechanism which held Ingenuity in a horizontal position under the rover’s belly. Next a pyrotechnic device fired to allow the drone to slowly rotate into vertical position. During this maneuver two of the four legs of Ingenuity deployed, soon followed by the other two.

Ingenuity rotated into vertical position. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
Ingenuity rotated into vertical position. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Now as one of the final steps before the first flight, Perseverance drove to the center of the airfield and released Ingenuity, which then dropped about 10 centimeters to the surface. If Ingenuity survives the next Martian night and proves that its onboard batterie and solar pannel is able to provide enough energy for communication, heating and other vital systems, NASA can continue with the preparations for the first flight attempt, which is currently scheduled to occur no earlier than April 11, 2021.

Ingenuity seen on the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
Ingenuity seen on the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The flight

Once all systems are “Go”, the ground controllers will command Ingenuity to start its rotors. During all operations with Ingenuity, Perseverance will serve as the relay station between Earth and the drone. If everything looks good and the rotors of the helicopter have reached their final rotation speed of 2,537 rpm, the rotorcraft will take off and fly to an altitude of about 3 meters, where it will hover for about 30 seconds. Then Ingenuity will begin its descent back to the surface and hopefully land soon after. All data, videos and images collected during the flight, will be stored by Perseverance and later send to Earth for analysis. If the flight attempt is successful, the probe will write history as the first craft ever to perform a powered flight on another planet. The technology might serve future missions, which could use rotorcrafts to scout distant locations before driving there.

Successful or not, Ingenuity’s story will most likely inspire a lot of people, especially the younger generation, to continue exploring the vastness of the universe and developing new technologies which might serve future generations.

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