NASA has decided to fly the Ingenuity, Mars Helicopter, on April 11, 2021. This will be the very first helicopter to ever fly on another planet and controlled from Earth. Ingenuity is attached to the ventral side of NASA’s Perseverance rover. On February 18, 2021, It touched the soil of Mars. On March 21, 2021, the rover deployed the shield that was protecting the helicopter during landing. The rover is moving towards the “Airfield” where the Ingenuity will start to fly. Once done deploying, Ingenuity will get 30 sols (Martian Days) or 31 Earth days to conduct the test flight campaign.
Challenges to Face
Flying on Mars is not similar to fly on Earth. Mars is different from Earth in a lot of ways. It is worth mentioning, Mars has one-third gravity of Earth and the atmosphere on Mars is only 1% as denser as on Earth. Mars receives half of the solar power that we receive here on Earth during the daytime. At Night, Mars hits a temperature of minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit or minus 90 degrees Celsius. At this temperature, any unprotected electrical components or devices can freeze or break.
To fit within the available circumstances, the Ingenuity helicopter must be small and has to be lightweight to fly on the Martian Sky. For tackling the cold temperature on Martian night, the helicopter must have enough energy to power the heaters inside it. Ingenuity has been tested several times to be sure that it will be able to survive on Mars.
Deploying the Ingenuity
A 33-by-33-foot (10-by-10-meter) patch of Martian ground has been chosen as the Airfield. Before starting to fly on Mars, The Helicopter must be at the center of the Airfield. As soon as the helicopter and rover team confirms the position of Perseverance, which is according to their precise calculated spot, The deployment of the helicopter starts. Once the deployment is started it can not be stopped. All the activities will be closely coordinated, irreversible, and dependent on each other there. The whole deployment process will take no less than six sols ( Six days and four hours on Earth).
On the first sol, Team on Earth will activate the bolt breaking device. This is the locking mechanism that helps the helicopter to be firmly attached to the rover’s ventral side during the launch from Earth to landing on Mars and till now.
On the second sol, the cable-cutting pyrotechnic device will be activated. The device will begin to rotate the helicopter out of its horizontal position. At the same time, the rotorcraft will extend two legs while another two legs will be kept folding.
On the next sol, a small electric motor will finish rotating the helicopter to bring it totally vertical. The motor will rotate the Ingenuity until it latches.
On the fourth sol, the helicopter will extend the other two legs. On every sol up to these four sols, WATSON – Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering imager will take a number of photos to confirm that Ingenuity is perfectly deploying. In the final position, the helicopter will be hanging about 13cm over the Martian soil. At this moment, A single bolt and a few electrical wires are connecting the Ingenuity with the Perseverance.
On the fifth sol, Perseverance will charge the helicopter’s six-cell battery through the wires it has been connected with. Once the attachments are cut, Ingenuity will drop from that 13cm and Perseverance will be moved from there. Thus helicopter can charge itself with the solar panels attached to it.
On the sixth sol, the team will cross-check that the four legs of the helicopter are firmly on the surface, The rover drives about 5 meters away from the helicopter, and Both the rover and helicopter can communicate through their radios.
As soon as these steps are done, Ingenuity will get thirty sols to conduct preflight checks and flight tests. The helicopter and rover team will come with the tests as planned.
First Martian Flight
Once the team gets ready, Perseverance will receive and relay to Ingenuity with the instructions from the mission control center. Flight times are dependent on a number of factors impacting on. Notables are modeling of local wind patterns, environmental measurements taken by perseverance, and so on. Ingenuity will run rotors at 2,537 rpm. If every self-checks are good, It will lift off.
The helicopter will fly at a rate of 1 meter per second. At an altitude of 3 meters, the helicopter will hover for 30 seconds. Then Ingenuity will return to the Martian surface again. Several hours after this flying session, Perseverance will downlink Ingenuity’s first data containing images and videos from the rover’s navigation cameras. From those data downlinked that evening after the flight, the Helicopter team will decide whether the First Flight on Mars is a Success or not.
On the next sol all other engineering data collected during the flight, and some low-resolution black and white pictures from the Ingenuity’s camera could be downlinked to the mission control center. On the upcoming third sol, Two very high-resolution color pictures will arrive at the mission control center. These high-resolution pictures are taken by the camera of the helicopter. Analyzing every data and picture, Helicopter Team will decide their further move.
It would be a proud moment for all of us. Mars is not an easy planet to run missions on. It took time and effort. Patience was the key. NASA has gone so far with the Mars mission. This is not an easy task to monitor a helicopter from another planet. But We are going to be a part of history by doing so. Let us hope for the best.