Before the NASA Perseverance rover searches for signs of past Mars microbes, it will first take on the most technologically exciting part of its mission: flying a helicopter.
Under the belly of Perseverance, a car-sized robotic vehicle that landed on Mars last month, is Ingenuity, a four-pound mini-helicopter designed to demonstrate that flying on another planet is possible.
NASA officials announced Tuesday that they had selected the location for this alien levitation demonstration – north of the landing site.
The rover drives to this location, where it carefully drops Ingenuity down and then drives back to watch the flights. Ingenuity is slated to launch on April 8th at the earliest, though Bob Balaram, Ingenuity’s chief engineer, said this could go up or down a few days.
“It will take 31 days on Earth to try to be the first helicopter to fly on another planet,” said Lori Glaze, director of the planetary science division at NASA, during a news conference Tuesday.
NASA officials have described this as the “Wright Brothers Moment” for space exploration, and on Tuesday the agency announced that Ingenuity contains an artifact from the first Wright aircraft that took off from Kitty Hawk, NC, in 1903.
“We are very proud to honor this experimental aircraft from a long time ago with a small piece of cloth,” said Balaram.
Until 1997, all spacecraft sent to the surface of Mars were stationary landers. But that year the Pathfinder mission included something revolutionary for NASA: a robot with wheels. That rover, Sojourner, was about the size of a short filing cabinet, and planetary scientists quickly saw the benefits of being able to move around the Martian landscape. Four more NASA rovers, including Perseverance, have since followed to the red planet.
Ingenuity is essentially the aerial counterpart of Sojourner, a demonstration of a novel technology that may be used on a larger scale on later missions. Ingenuity’s body is about the size of a softball with four protruding spindle-shaped legs. Two sets of blades, each about four feet from tip to tip, rotate in opposite directions to create lift.
Flying on Mars is not a trivial endeavor. There isn’t much air to push against to create buoyancy. On the surface of Mars, the atmosphere is only 1/100 as dense as that of Earth. The lower gravity – a third of what you’re feeling here – helps get into the air. However, taking off from the Martian surface is akin to flying at an altitude of 100,000 feet on Earth. No helicopter on our planet has soared this high, and it is more than twice the typical altitude of a jetliner.
Since Perseverance’s immaculate arrival on Mars on February 18 in a 30-mile-wide crater called Jezero, engineers have been studying the spacecraft and its instruments. This includes the first short drives and the firing of a laser that vaporizes rocks and soil to identify chemical elements.
Two microphones on Perseverance recorded some of the sounds of the red planet, including the rustle of the winds, the click of the laser as it zapped a stone about ten feet away, and the metallic clanking and scraping noises of the rover’s six wheels rolling across the grounds .
“Everything is going great so far,” said Kenneth Farley, the mission’s project scientist, during a virtual presentation at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference last week. “But this is mostly the checkout phase. We are not doing comprehensive science yet. “
Dr. Farley said the scientists had already spotted signs of wind erosion on some rocks. Other rocks looked like they were formed by the flow of water. “This is very promising for our study,” he said. Scientists also saw stones with holes in them that may have been volcanic rocks that trapped gas bubbles as they cooled.
The main scientific research begins in early summer after the Ingenuity tests are over.
Perseverance cannot take a direct route to a river delta on the edge of Jezero because of a treacherous field of sand dunes that lies in between. Instead, it will drive around the sand dunes.
Team members still decide whether to go north, on a faster route, or south, which seems geologically more fascinating as it contains locations with mineral deposits that may be remnants of the river delta.