In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright flew an airplane for 12 seconds, 120 feet in the air, in what is now known as the first motor-controlled flight on Earth. Now, 118 years later, the first attempted motor-controlled flight on another planet is about to take place.
According to NASA, Ingenuity, the four-pound helicopter attached to Perseverance, is on its way to its “airfield” on Mars.
The space agency announced that its target for its first takeoff attempt will not occur before April 8, 2021.
Ingenuity was designed as an experiment to see if it is possible to fly on Mars like we do here on Earth. And the pre-takeoff process is very meticulous. Consider how long it took for humans to maintain motor-controlled flight on Earth; Given the thin atmosphere of Mars and a twenty minute delay in communication, it is arguably more challenging on Mars.
“As with everything with the helicopter, this type of deployment has never been done before,” Farah Alibay, lead helicopter integration on Mars for the Perseverance rover, said in a press release. “Once we start the deployment, there is no going back.”
Every move over the next two weeks could make or break Ingenuity’s success, starting with precisely positioning the helicopter in the middle of its 33-by-33-foot square airfield, which is actually a flat field on the Martian surface with no obstructions. From there, the entire Perseverance implementation process will take about six Martian days, which are called suns. (The Martian sun is thirty-nine minutes longer than an Earth day.)
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The plan is that on one of its six suns deployed, scientists on Earth will activate a bolt-breaking device that will release the padlock that has held Ingenuity in Perseverance’s womb so firmly during the journey from Earth to Mars. During the second sun, the scientists will fire a “cable-cutting pyrotechnic device” to begin pushing the helicopter out of its horizontal position; Cable cutting aside, in the second sun, Ingenuity will literally begin to stretch out two of its four legs. In the third sun, a small electric motor will rotate the Ingenuity and bring it to a fully vertical position. In the fourth sun, ingenuity will continue to develop. In the fifth sun, scientists will charge Ingenuity’s batteries via Perseverance as a source of solar energy. At this point, it will hang suspended about 5 inches (13 centimeters) above the Martian surface, connected to Perseverance only by a single bolt and a few small electrical contacts.
“Once we cut the wire with perseverance and drop those last five centimeters to the surface, we want our great friend to leave as quickly as possible so that we can catch the rays of the sun on our solar panel and start recharging our batteries.” Bob Balaram, chief Mars helicopter engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.
From there, it’s time to see if ingenuity can take flight. Perseverance will move 16 feet away from Ingenuity, which will have 30 Martian suns to run its test flight campaign.
Flying is very difficult on Mars, not only because of the difference in Earth’s gravity, but also because the atmosphere of Mars is only 1% denser than Earth’s atmosphere on the surface. There are also drastic temperature changes that occur on Mars; During the day, the red planet receives half of the solar energy that reaches Earth. At night, temperatures plummet to minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit. The device is small because it must be light to fly through the atmosphere, but it must also have enough energy to retain power during cold Martian nights. There’s a chance that Ingenuity won’t even survive his first night alone.
“Every step we have taken since this journey began six years ago has been uncharted territory in aircraft history,” Balaram said. “And while being deployed on the surface will be a great challenge, surviving that first night alone on Mars, without the rover protecting it and keeping it powered up, will be even greater.”
But assuming it does, Perseverance will relay its flight instructions to Ingenuity, via millions of controllers here on Earth. The plan is for Ingenuity to run its rotors at 2,537 revolutions per minute and then take off. If all goes well, it will ascend at about one meter per second and float at 10 feet for 30 seconds before descending and touching the ground on Mars. After a couple of test flights, the real mission will begin.
“Mars is tough,” Aung said. “Our plan is to work whatever the Red Planet throws at us in the same way that we handle all the challenges we have faced over the past six years: together, with tenacity, a lot of hard work and a little ingenuity.”
In particular, Ingenuity’s design contains a nod to the first motor-controlled flight here on Earth.
According to NASA, a small piece of fabric used to cover one of the wings of the Wright brothers’ aircraft is tucked under one of Ingenuity’s solar panels with the help of electrical tape. The Apollo 11 crew flew a different piece of material during its historic 1969 mission to the moon.
“The device is an experimental engineering flight test; we want to see if we can fly to Mars,” Aung said. “There are no scientific instruments on board or targets to obtain scientific information. We are confident that all the engineering data that we want to obtain both on the surface of Mars and in the air can be done within this 30-sun window.”