Jezero Crater, a former lake bed on Mars and the current site of the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter, can drop to temperatures of minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit. This is low enough to cause significant damage to the helicopter’s electrical and battery components.
The 4-pound helicopter finally separated on April 3 from the belly of the Perseverance rover, where it had been hidden since the rover launched from Earth in July.
The ingenuity went through a series of movements to unwind under the rover, which resembled a butterfly’s metamorphosis, before dropping the last 4 inches onto the Martian surface.
“This is the first time that Ingenuity has been alone on the surface of Mars,” MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Said in a statement. “But now we have confirmation that we have the right insulation, the right heaters and enough power in its battery to survive the cold night, which is a big win for the team. We are excited to continue preparing Ingenuity for its first flight test. “
Ingenuity, the first rotorcraft to fly to Mars, presented a challenge to the engineers who designed it for several reasons. It had to be small enough to fit under the rover without endangering the mission of Perseverance, which is the first to search for evidence of ancient microbial life on Mars.
The ingenuity also had to be light to fly through the Martian atmosphere, which has only 1% of the atmosphere on Earth, while still having enough power to heat up and survive the freezing Martian nights. The thin nature of the atmosphere on Mars makes it more difficult to generate lift and climb in altitude.
Shortly after Perseverance dropped Ingenuity at the center of its airfield, the rover pulled away from the helicopter. This allowed the helicopter’s solar panel to collect critical sunlight.
Perseverance returned images of the helicopter’s four legs sitting on the surface April 4. The helicopter’s blades, currently stacked in line with each other, will be released on April 7, and the Earth mission team will send commands to the helicopter to “wiggle” the blades.
The helicopter also has to go through some checks of its computers, which will help Ingenuity to fly autonomously in the Martian atmosphere.
Now that Ingenuity is not borrowing power and heat from the rover, the helicopter will return feedback on the performance of its power and heat control systems over the next two days. This will allow the helicopter team to configure the necessary parameters to ensure that Ingenuity survives the next 30 days of its mission.
Ingenuity is a tech demo, which means its mission is short compared to the rover’s two-year plan to explore Jezero Crater. Now that the helicopter is on the Martian surface, it has 31 Earth days, or 30 Martian soils, to complete up to five test flights.
During the first flight, the helicopter will attempt to rise approximately 3 meters into the air from the middle of its flat 33-by-33-foot (10-by-10-meter) aerodrome, make a turn and touch back. The test should last approximately 30 seconds. Future flights will test the helicopter’s ability to fly higher and for longer.
Meanwhile, the Perseverance rover will sit on a nearby gazebo and observe the flight, capturing footage, video and audio. These will reach Earth within days of the first flight.
Once Ingenuity’s journey is complete, the rover will focus on its science mission and start studying rocks and collecting samples that will be returned to Earth by future missions.
“Our 30-ground test program is loaded with exciting milestones,” Teddy Tzanetos, deputy director of operations for the Ingenuity Mars helicopter at JPL, said in a statement. “Whatever the future holds, we will be acquiring all the flight data we can within that time frame.”