The Ingenuity helicopter, sidekick and traveling companion of NASA’s Perseverance rover, has checked in with a good report and is “operating as expected,” according to the agency.
If successful, Ingenuity will be the first helicopter to fly on another planet, leading to an “extraterrestrial Wright Brothers moment,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
The rover landed safely on the surface of Mars Thursday after launching from Earth on July 30. Perseverance has already sent back an impressive set of images to show that she’s safe and ready to go through a “checkout” phase before starting her journey across the surface.
Now, the mission team has heard directly from the helicopter for the first time — and it’s good news.
Ingenuity is currently tucked up beneath the rover and attached to Perseverance’s belly. The rover is about the size of an SUV, while the helicopter only weighs about 4 pounds.
The helicopter was able to phone home via the rover by sending data back through NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which acts as a communications relay between Mars and Earth and has been orbiting the red planet since 2006.
Ingenuity is comfortable where it is and isn’t letting go of the rover anytime soon for a test flight. The helicopter will remain snug with the rover for 30 to 60 days.
“Ingenuity, the Mars Helicopter I carry, is working as expected. I’m currently charging it, but once I set it down, it’ll rely solely on its solar panels. If it survives the brutally cold Martian nights, the team will attempt flight,” read a tweet from the Perseverance Twitter account.
“There are two big-ticket items we are looking for in the data: the state of charge of Ingenuity’s batteries as well as confirmation the base station is operating as designed, commanding heaters to turn off and on to keep the helicopter’s electronics within an expected range,” said Tim Canham, Ingenuity Mars Helicopter operations lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement.
“Both appear to be working great. With this positive report, we will move forward with (Saturday’s) charge of the helicopter’s batteries.”
Ingenuity needs to power up and store energy so it can keep itself warm and maintain other vital functions during the cold Martian nights once the rover deposits the helicopter on the red planet’s surface. Then, Ingenuity will be on its own.
And it will need to withstand nights where temperatures can drop as low as negative 130 degrees Fahrenheit. As Elton John famously sings in “Rocket Man,” Mars is, indeed, as cold as hell.
Maintaining function and good battery health will be critical if the helicopter is to survive the frigid Martian climate before attempting any test flights later on. A total of five test flights are planned over a 31-day period once the rover finds the right “helipad,” or nice flat spot, to deposit Ingenuity.
As long as Ingenuity is attached to Perseverance, the helicopter can give its batteries a boost. The helicopter has six lithium-ion batteries. Once it has detached from the rover, those batteries will be charged by the helicopter’s solar panel.
The first flight of Ingenuity will be short, only about 20 seconds of hovering off the ground. But it will be a historic moment. Much like the very first Martian rover, Sojourner, Ingenuity is a technology demonstration — an experiment. Proving that this concept can work could lead to the development of rotorcraft that could act as scouts for both rovers and human missions to Mars in the future.
If that first flight is successful, “over 90% of the project’s goals will have been achieved,” according to NASA.
Subsequent flights could last longer and test out more of the helicopter’s capabilities. It carries two cameras that can provide aerial images. Perseverance will also train its cameras on Ingenuity to capture the sights and sounds, including video, of these historic flights.
“We are in uncharted territory, but this team is used to that,” said MiMi Aung, project manager for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at JPL, in a statement. “Just about every milestone from here through the end of our flight demonstration program will be a first, and each has to succeed for us to go on to the next. We’ll enjoy this good news for the moment, but then we have to get back to work.”