NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter is one step closer to taking its first flight on Mars. On Saturday, the space agency announced that the helicopter had been successfully dropped off on the surface of the planet by the Perseverance rover, which has essentially served as the Ingenuity’s space taxi, charging station, and heater until now.
Since arriving to Mars in February, NASA’s 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) $80 million helicopter had been attached to the belly of the Perseverance rover. Recently, however, Perseverance has been taking Ingenuity to its destination: a 33-by-33-foot (10-by-10-meter) airfield, which was chosen for its flatness and lack of obstructions, where it will attempt the first powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet.
Once Perseverance got to the exact spot NASA wanted it to be in at the airfield, the complicated deployment process began. The days-long event included rotating the helicopter from a horizontal to a vertical position, extending its legs, and charging Ingenuity’s six battery cells via Perseverance one last time.
The most nerve-wracking moment came, no doubt, on Saturday when the rover dropped Ingenuity four inches (10 cm) to the surface of Mars. As we all know now, that was a success.
“#MarsHelicopter touchdown confirmed! Its 293 million mile (471 million km) journey aboard @NASAPersevere ended with the final drop of 4 inches (10 cm) from the rover’s belly to the surface of Mars today. Next milestone? Survive the night,” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory wrote on Twitter on Saturday.
Although that “survive the night,” comment might sound like a phrase used for dramatic effect, NASA means this quite literally. As explained by Bob Balaram, chief engineer for the Mars Helicopter Project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, until now Ingenuity has been connected to Perseverance, which allowed it to charge its battery and used the rover’s thermostat-controlled heater to keep its interior at 45°F (7°C).
Having a heater is very important on Mars, where the temperatures can drop to as low as -130°F at night (-90°C). The heater comfortably protects sensitive components such as the helicopter’s batteries and electronics from harm, e.g. freezing or cracking, that can be caused by the cold temperatures.
But wait, that was Ingenuity’s life with Perseverance. Now that it’s on its own, the helicopter will have to get used to colder temperatures. The helicopter will also have to rely on its own ability to generate energy. Before saying goodbye to Perseverance, Ingenuity charged up its batteries to 100%. Now it will have to rely on the Sun.
Balaram said that the Sun’s energy is weaker on Mars, or about half of what we would find on Earth on bright, sunny day. Yet, that’s enough for the helicopter’s solar panel to charge its batteries.
“Ingenuity can’t afford to keep the temperature of its interior at a ‘balmy’ 45F -that takes too much precious energy from the battery,” Balaram said in a status update on NASA’s website on Friday. “Instead, when it wakes up on the surface after being dropped, it sets its thermostat to about 5F [-15°C] or lower. Then it’s off to survive the first night on its own!”
Balaram affirmed that the Ingenuity team would be waiting to hear from the helicopter on Sunday to confirm whether it had made it through the night and whether its solar panel was working as expected. As of publication, there were no additional updates on how Ingenuity was doing on Sunday, but fingers crossed it’s doing good!
Over the next few days, the Ingenuity team will check the rover’s temperatures and its batteries’ recharge performance. If those checks turn out well, then NASA will move forward with unlocking the helicopter’s rotor blades and testing its motors and sensors.
On Saturday, NASA stated that Ingenuity’s first flight attempt would be no earlier than April 11, with data received on Earth on April 12. The helicopter will have 30 Martian sols, or 31 Earth days, to carry out its test flight campaign.