As exciting as the entire Perseverance mission to Mars is, one of the events most looked forward to by us Earthlings must be the first flight of Ingenuity. After conducting numerous checks and double-checks, the Perseverance team has set April 8 as the date on which they hope to attempt the first controlled powered flight on another planet.
If all goes well, then in about two weeks Ingenuity will make its first hovering flight about 10 feet above the Martian soil. But the meantime will be chock full of preparation.
In the first place the team had to identify an “airfield,” a ten-meter-square space of flat ground close at hand to Perseverance’s landing zone. Having done so, the rover will soon make its way to the exact center and confirm its location.
Then the helicopter itself must be detached from the belly of the rover, to which it is apparently locked, bolted, and cabled. These are meant to keep it secure during the chaotic landing process, and are irreversible — so the team has to be 100 percent sure this is the spot and the conditions are right. The process should take about five days.
Once Ingenuity has been detached from Perseverance and rotated to flight-ready position, it will hang just five inches above the surface and use its few remaining connections with the rover to charge its batteries. Perseverance will then set it down and quickly drive away.
“Every step we have taken since this journey began six years ago has been uncharted territory in the history of aircraft,” said Bob Balaram, chief engineer of the project at JPL, in a NASA news release. “And while getting deployed to the surface will be a big challenge, surviving that first night on Mars alone, without the rover protecting it and keeping it powered, will be an even bigger one. 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.”
Once the helicopter detaches, it has 30 Martian days, or sols, in which it is sure to have enough power to work — beyond that they can’t be sure.
The next couple days will involve tests of Ingenuity’s systems and a test spin-up of its rotors to 2,537 RPM. The atmosphere of Mars is only a tiny fraction of that on Earth, making flight considerably more difficult in many ways. But that’s what makes it so fun to try!
If all the tests and checks are green, then on April 8 at the earliest Ingenuity will attempt to lift off, going up to 3 meters and staying for 30 seconds. The team should know if the flight was a success within a couple hours — and maybe even get some black and white imagery from the Ingenuity’s on-board cameras. Color imagery will come a few days later.
The team will evaluate what to do next based on this first flight, and the next weeks may bring more — and farther — forays around the airfield. We’ll know more after the data comes back.
A touching inclusion on Ingenuity’s chassis is a tiny scrap of the material from the Wright brothers’ first aircraft, the Flyer. So the machine that flew first on Earth will be present in a small way at the first on another planet.