The first helicopter on another Planet sent a signal to the control center after the rover Perseverance touched down at Jezero Crater on Mars on February 18th.
The first helicopter ever sent to another planet is doing well on Mars after surviving the “seven minutes of horror” on board of NASA’s Perseverance.
Suppose the revolutionary Ingenuity helicopter, currently stowed aboard the similarly spectacular Mars Perseverance rover, accomplishes its planned mission. In that case, Mars will become the second planet to have a powered aircraft fly through its atmosphere.
Ingenuity has sent its first status report since landing on Mars.
The signal, which arrived via the iconic Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), reports on the state of the batteries of the helicopter as well as the operation of the base station, which, among other things, operates the critically important heaters that keep the electronics within an acceptable temperature range.
Following this positive report, the six lithium-ion batteries will continue to be charged to about 30% of their planned capacity and the data will be sent back to Earth to decide how to proceed with future battery charging sessions.
Once Perseverance deploys Ingenuity to the surface, the helicopter’s batteries will be charged from its own solar panel, and the helicopter will have an experimental time window for a test flight of 30 Martian days (31 Earth days).
If Ingenuity survives the first frosty Martian nights – where temperatures drop to minus 90 degrees Celsius – the team will continue with the first flight of an aircraft to another planet.
One of the most significant obstacles for landing on Mars will continue to present problems for our heroic helicopter now that it is safely on the surface. The atmospheric pressure on the surface of Mars is only about 1% that of Earth. To put that in perspective, the summit of Mount Everest has only one-third the atmospheric pressure of sea level.
The rarefied air on Mars makes helicopter flight extraordinarily challenging. Ingenuity will spin its two counter-rotating rotors five times faster than Earthly helicopters, about forty times per second. Ingenuity is also light, only about 1.8 kilograms. The rotors are about 1.2 meters in diameter and are relatively oversized to maximize lift. Fortunately Mars does give Ingenuity a break in one area – the Red Planet has only about one-third of the surface gravity of the Earth.
The helicopter does not play a critical role in the scientific mission of Perseverance. In essence, this is a technological demonstration or proof of concept, and the data collected by Ingenuity will be used in engineering future Martian aircraft. If Ingenuity manages to take off and stay during its first flight, over 90% of the project’s goals will be achieved. If the helicopter lands successfully and everything is fine, up to four more flights can be tried, and each subsequent one will make the helicopter’s mission even more successful.