NASA Reveals Flight Zone For Historic Helicopter Flight on Mars

Engineers announced on Tuesday that NASA has selected a location on Mars for the first demo flight of its Ingenuity mini helicopter. The four-pound rotorcraft is preparing to make the first powered flight on another planet, demonstrating a new capability that could one day allow access to hard-to-reach areas of other celestial bodies.

Ingenuity landed on Mars in February, clinging to the Perseverance rover’s belly after a seven-month journey through deep space and a grueling seven-minute landing sequence through the Martian atmosphere. Engineers began analyzing orbital imagery shortly after Perseverance landed to find a prime flight zone to drop off Ingenuity for its first flight — “an area where it is safe for the helicopter to take off, and also safe for the helicopter to land again after flight,” the craft’s chief pilot, Håvard Grip, said.

NASA Reveals Flight Zone For Historic Helicopter Flight on Mars
Rover Point of View of Ingenuity Flight Zone: This image shows the flight zone of NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter from the perspective of NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover. The flight zone is the area within which the helicopter will attempt to fly. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The landing site, he said, needed to be flat and free of any large rocks that could threaten Ingenuity’s flight demos. But it also needed to have “texture” — distinct features on the ground that the helicopter’s AI-powered navigation camera can spot to track its whereabouts during flight. Soon after landing, “we began to realize that we might just have a really great airfield right in front of our noses,” Grip told reporters at a press briefing on Tuesday.

Perseverance is 196 feet away from the landing site, in the middle of a days-long drive to the flight zone. The craft will be lowered to the ground once it arrives. Perseverance will then drive for about 25 hours to a location called the Van Zyl Overlook, which NASA named after Jakob Van Zyl, a senior Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist who died last year.

NASA Reveals Flight Zone For Historic Helicopter Flight on Mars
Van Zyl Overlook: The location where NASA’s Perseverance rover will observe Ingenuity’s attempt at powered controlled flight at Mars is called “Van Zyl Overlook.” Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

According to Farah Alibay, who leads Ingenuity’s integration with Perseverance, dropping the helicopter off in its flight zone is “a very prescribed and meticulous process.” Before touching down, Ingenuity will have to be flipped from its current horizontal position on the rover to a vertical position, which will take “multiple days,” she said. “The most stressful day, at least for me, is gonna be that last day while we finally separate the helicopter and drop Ingenuity on the ground.”

NASA Reveals Flight Zone For Historic Helicopter Flight on Mars
Engineers test Ingenuity’s deployment from Perseverance using mock-ups.
 Image: NASA / JPL

Once on the ground, NASA engineers expect Ingenuity to conduct its first flight test no earlier than April 8th, give or take a few days depending on Mars’ weather. The helicopter’s flight zone is shaped like a mini running track, with a box-shaped takeoff and return area on one side of the zone. “The first flight is special — it’s by far the most important flight we plan to do,” Grip said, adding that a successful first flight will mean “complete mission success.”

Several factors will determine the precise time for the flight, including modeling of local wind patterns plus measurements taken by the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) aboard Perseverance. Ingenuity will run its rotors to 2,537 rpm and, if all final self-checks look good, lift off. After climbing at a rate of about 3 feet per second (1 meter per second), the helicopter will hover at 10 feet (3 meters) above the surface for up to 30 seconds. Then, the Mars Helicopter will descend and touch back down on the Martian surface.

NASA Reveals Flight Zone For Historic Helicopter Flight on Mars
The flight model of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter.
 Image: NASA / JPL

Ingenuity’s underside will be equipped with a 0.5-megapixel navigation camera that will take 30 photos per second of the ground to help it navigate. Ingenuity also has a second, more powerful camera facing the horizon, with 13 megapixels. That will take pictures in mid-flight, while the Perseverance’s cameras will try to catch the helicopter in flight. All of those pictures will eventually be transmitted back to Earth.

After Ingenuity’s first 10-foot takeoff, four more flight tests are scheduled over the next month. The results of the first flight test will have a big impact on how the helicopter performs in the subsequent ones. “It could, in principle, go higher currently as designed,” Grip said. “There may be cases where, if everything goes well during our nominal flights, we might stretch things a little bit beyond the nominal flight.”

Ingenuity’s test campaign will most likely end after that. It’s a demo mission, and Perseverance has other objectives to focus on, like collecting Martian soil samples for a future Mars mission to bring back to Earth.

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