Science

The Ingenuity helicopter captures its first color photo of Mars!

The cameras of Ingenuity, NASA’s mini helicopter, are operational: the craft took its first photo of the red planet on Saturday April 3. We can see the floor of the Jezero crater, as well as part of the wheels of the Perseverance rover. Now the craft is preparing for its first test flight, which could take place this Sunday, April 11.

The rover and the helicopter have been on Mars since February 18. Until last Saturday, Ingenuity was attached to his exploration companion, who dropped him safely on Martian soil, before moving away a short distance; enough for the sunlight to reach the small solar-powered device.

In the coming days, Perseverance will move further away, to join a named position Van Zyl Overlook, which offers a very good perspective on the area that the mission team selected as the airfield for Ingenuity. If the preliminary tests go as planned, it should take off in a few days.

Soon the first motorized flight on another planet!

Unlike the rover, the little $ 85 million helicopter is not intended to explore Martian soil; it is not, moreover, equipped with any scientific instrument. This is actually a technological demonstration: if this mode of aerial exploration proves feasible, future missions to Mars could include helicopters as full-fledged exploration devices, thus completing the work done by rovers on the ground.

Ingenuity still has to function properly throughout its 30-day trial period, which should include five flights. No scientific instrument on board, but two cameras that will allow it to capture images during the flight. NASA officials said these future shots should be much sharper than this photo taken on Saturday, while the helicopter was still under the Perseverance rover:

Low-resolution view of the ground of Jezero crater and part of the two wheels of the Perseverance rover, captured by the color imager on the Ingenuity helicopter. The image was taken on April 3, 2021, while the solar-powered rotorcraft was still under the rover after its deployment. © NASA / JPL-Caltech

For its first flight, the helicopter will take off a few meters above the ground, hover in the air for about 20 to 30 seconds, then land. This will obviously be a major milestone: the very first powered flight in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars. Data from this test will reach Earth on April 12. Subsequently, the team will attempt additional experimental flights at a progressively further distance and at a higher altitude; however, they will not exceed 5 meters in altitude and will take place over a distance of 90 meters at most.

Ingenuity NASA flight plans
This illustration shows the activities planned by NASA for its Ingenuity helicopter. © NASA / JPL-Caltech

At the same time, Perseverance will attempt to document the entire flight program from its point of view, using its high-resolution camera system, Mastcam-Z, a multispectral stereoscopic imaging instrument. The rover could also record the sound produced by the flights of the helicopter via its two on-board microphones. NASA specialists, however, clarified that audio recovery was not guaranteed, given the speed with which the sound attenuates in this sparse Martian atmosphere.

The helicopter is resistant to the Martian cold!

While attached to Perseverance, Ingenuity benefited from the energy provided by the rover’s nuclear-powered system. Since Saturday, it can only rely on its rechargeable solar-powered battery to power a small internal radiator responsible for keeping its circuits warm during the cold Martian nights. “ This heater keeps the interior at around 7 ° C during Martian night, where temperatures can drop to -90 ° C Says Bob Balaram of NASA, chief engineer for the Ingenuity project. The temperature is a priori sufficient to protect the battery and the most sensitive components: the helicopter indeed survived its first night alone!

NASA is planning a series of tests before the first test flight, starting with the triggering of the helicopter’s four rotor blades, which spin at up to 2,537 rpm; a maneuver of which Perseverance will not miss a beat from its observation point, located about 16.5 meters from the drone. Note that the results of Ingenuity’s first test flight will be released on April 12 on NASA’s JPL YouTube and Facebook pages.

Once the helicopter has completed its technology demonstration, Perseverance will continue its scientific mission. As a reminder, he’s tasked with looking for signs of ancient life on the floor of Jezero Crater, which experts say housed a river delta and a large lake billions of years ago. The rover’s role is to collect and store several dozen samples of Martian soil, which will be recovered later, via future Martian missions carried out jointly by NASA and the European Space Agency, perhaps as early as 2031.

NASA Mars Exploration Program

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