December 7, 2023

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.

“This area has to be flat, of course,” said Håvard Grip, the NASA engineer who serves as the main pilot for Ingenuity’s flights, during a press conference Tuesday, “and there need be few obstacles – rocks and the like – that could do that. ” pose a danger to the helicopter when landing. “

The rover has already passed this location and will now return. Through perseverance, Ingenuity is carefully set down and then withdrawn to observe the flights from a distance of approximately 200 feet. 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. “It is not meant to be used to collect science, but because its mission is so focused, it is innovative at its core.”

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 little piece of cloth,” said Dr. Balaram.

The fabric is about the size of a postage stamp and is attached to a cable at the bottom of the solar panel, said Dr. 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.

Ingenuity uses a processor chip comparable to what was found in cell phones a few years ago and has about 150 times the processing power available to the much larger Perseverance rover.

“It provides the data processing required for many navigation and image processing functions,” said Dr. Balaram.

The first flight is said to be a modest up and down, ascending to a height of just 10 feet. “And then we’re going to hover in place for about 30 seconds and make a turn in the helicopter while we hover,” said Dr. Grip. “And then come down and land again.”

Ingenuity will make up to five flights. The first three are used to test the basic skills of the helicopter. The last two flights could continue to fly, but NASA officials refused to speculate how much further.

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.

Scientists working with other NASA spacecraft on Mars have also announced new discoveries. Data from InSight and its sensitive seismometer, tracking the path of seismic vibrations through Mars, suggest that the planet’s core has a radius between 1,125 and 1,155 miles. That is larger than some earlier estimates.

“Such a large core implies a relatively low mean density of the core,” said Simon Stähler, seismologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, in a presentation for the planetary science conference last week.

That suggests lighter elements like oxygen mixed with the iron and sulfur that make up most of the nucleus, said Dr. Stahler. This finding could improve our understanding of the formation of Mars and other rocky planets.