Jezero Crater, a former lake bed on Mars and the current site of the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter, can drop to temperatures of minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s low enough to cause significant damage to the helicopter’s battery and electrical components.
The 4-pound helicopter finally separated on April 3 from the belly of the Perseverance rover, where it has been hiding since before the rover was launched from Earth in July.
The device went through a series of movements to deploy from underneath the rover, which looked like the metamorphosis of a butterfly, before dropping the last 4 inches to the Martian surface.
“This is the first time that Ingenuity has been alone on the surface of Mars,” MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement. “But now we have confirmation that we have the proper insulation, the proper heaters, and enough battery power to survive the cold night, which is a huge victory for the team. We are excited to continue preparing Ingenuity for its first test of flight.”
Ingenuity, the first helicopter sent to Mars, challenged the engineers who designed it for a number of reasons. It had to be small enough to fit underneath the rover without jeopardizing the Perseverance mission, which is the first to search for evidence of ancient microbial life on Mars.
The device also had to be lightweight to fly through the Martian atmosphere, which has only 1% of the atmosphere present on Earth, while still having enough power to warm up and survive the frigid Martian nights. The thin nature of Mars’ atmosphere makes it more difficult to generate lift and rise.
Shortly after Perseverance deposited Ingenuity at the center of its airfield, the rover moved away from the helicopter. This allowed the helicopter’s solar array to collect critical sunlight.
Perseverance sent images of the helicopter’s four legs on the surface. April 4. The helicopter blades, currently stacked in alignment one on top of the other, will be launched on April 7, and the mission team on Earth will send orders to the helicopter to “move” the blades.
The helicopter must also go through some checks on its computers, which will help Ingenuity fly autonomously through the Martian atmosphere.
Now that Ingenuity is not borrowing power and heat from the rover, the helicopter will send information on the performance of its power and thermal control systems for the next two days. This will allow the helicopter team to configure the necessary settings to ensure that Ingenuity survives the next 30 days of its mission.
The ingenuity is a technology demonstration, meaning its mission is short compared to the rover’s two-year plan to explore Jezero crater. Now that the helicopter is on the Martian surface, it has 31 Earth days, or 30 Martian Suns, to conduct up to five test flights.
During the first flight, the helicopter will attempt to rise about 10 feet (3 meters) into the air from the center of its 33-by-33-foot (10-by-10-meter) flat airfield, turn, and touch back. The test should take about 30 seconds. Future flights will test the helicopter’s ability to fly higher and longer.
Meanwhile, the Perseverance rover will sit on a nearby lookout and watch the flight, capturing images, video and audio. Those will arrive on Earth in the days after the first flight.
Once Ingenuity’s journey comes to an end, the rover will focus on its science mission and begin studying rocks and collecting samples that will be returned to Earth on future missions.
“Our 30-sun test program is moving forward with exciting milestones,” said Teddy Tzanetos, deputy director of operations for the Ingenuity Mars helicopter at JPL, in a statement. “Regardless of what the future holds, we will acquire as much flight data as we can within that time frame.”