Science

Now landing on Mars, the Ingenuity drone is about to take off

If it manages to fly in the Martian atmosphere, the small NASA helicopter will achieve a first. It has just been detached from the Perseverance robot to which it was attached and is preparing for its first flight on April 11.

Ingenuity ready for its first flight © NASA / JPL-Caltech

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Pasadena), the Ingeniosity team led by Mimi Aung saw their eyes riveted on their “baby”, a small 1.8 kilo drone supposed to carry out the first alien flight. It has already achieved two crucial first steps: surviving the intense vibrations of takeoff and landing and withstanding a freezing first night in autonomy. Embedded under the belly of the Perseverance robot, in an inverted position so that the 4 feet are protected inside the cabin of the rover, Ingenuity has hitherto benefited from the energy of its carrier (the rover). Step by step, with extreme caution, the engineers unfold the sequence that precedes the first flight. The helicopter was slowly detached, turned over and placed on the ground, a few tens of centimeters lower. The robot then moved away, as evidenced by the traces left by its 6 wheels in the Martian regolith. Now Ingenuity is stand-alone.

Crucial first night

And he survived his first very cold night. On the red planet the thermal difference between nights and days is significant: from 20 ° to – 90 °, which puts a strain on the on-board electronics. When Ingenuity was “let go” by Perseverance, its battery was 100% charged but, very quickly, it was necessary to verify that this energy would be enough to overcome the nights. Now, solar energy will charge the battery. A few days will be devoted to studying the charging cycles by the solar panel. “If we don’t have enough energy, we won’t survive the nights and we won’t be able to fly “ Mimi Aung confirmed today.

This energy must not only be used for flight but also for the small radiator provided to maintain a warmer temperature for the instruments.. “The heating system maintains an interior temperature of 7 °” explains Bob Balaram, chief engineer within the team. After the first night, the ground crew will have to wait for a signal to see if the tiny helicopter has passed the fireproof.

Towards augmented exploration

Before the first flight, now scheduled for April 11, NASA must unlock the rotors. It plans to turn the propellers at 50 rpm before pushing the power up to 240 rpm, cruising speed. During the first start-up, a vertical take-off and then a return to the ground are planned. Gradually, the movements will be longer and more complex (sideways for example). Mimi Aung insists on the fact that this is a prototype and that without a pilot to correct any problems, it was decided to take his time and multiply the checks. Ingenuity has 30 days to prove itself. If the concept is validated, such drones could be added to future space missions to complement the work of the rovers. Equipped with cameras or sensors, they would considerably expand the study area of ​​rolling vehicles currently available to scientists on Mars.

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