NASA’s Perseverance rover is slowly getting ready to deploy the first helicopter on Mars even as it takes a look back at the litter it’s dropping on the Red Planet.
The rover, which was sterilized on Earth to prevent contaminating Mars with microbes, dropped a protective debris shield onto the planet’s surface on March 21. The shield was created to protect Ingenuity during the “seven minutes of terror” landing in February, but it is no longer needed. “Away goes the debris shield, and here’s our first look at the helicopter,” the Perseverance Twitter account tweeted March 21.
The Mars helicopter can be seen slowly unfolding from its initial position on the rover’s belly in a series of images from Perseverance.
“It is stowed sideways, folded up and locked in place, so there’s some reverse origami to do before I can set it down. First though, I’ll be off to the designated ‘helipad,’ a couple days’ drive from here,” Perseverance team members wrote on Twitter as the rover.
NASA plans to launch the Ingenuity flight campaign no earlier than April 8, assuming Perseverance can safely deploy the helicopter on the surface, which will take six sols (Martian days). In Earth time, a sol is approximately 24 hours and 40 minutes. Perseverance and Ingenuity are also working mostly on their own, as radio communications must send preprogrammed instructions to Mars, which is several minutes’ light speed away from us.
The rover is part of a larger mission to look for signs of habitability in Jezero Crater, which appears to have been water-rich in the past. Perseverance will save the best samples it finds for a future sample-return mission to Earth. If Ingenuity can fly, it will hail a potential new generation of Martian explorers that can scout ahead of rovers and even humans, in the decades to come, to make surface exploration easier.