Although when talking about the Mars Perseverance mission we immediately think of the rover, we must not forget Ingenuity, the little helicopter that accompanies the rolling laboratory in the Jezero crater, which, as we told you a few days ago, carries a fragment of the Wright brothers’ Flyer-1, which is also one more example of how far free software can go, and which aspires to be the the first human-made device to fly on a planet other than Earth, something much more complex than it might seem at first.
Preparations for the first flight of Ingenuity on Mars are still underway, and only a few hours ago we learned that, after a journey in which a rover and a helicopter have traveled together 471 million kilometers, Perseverance and Ingenuity have parted ways for the first time, when the small flying artifact has disengaged from the rover to land, already alone, on the Martian surface. After completing this operation, the rover has begun to slowly move away from it, as you can see in the image.
The first challenge the Ingenuity will now face is not flight, but temperature. A warm day in that region of Mars is comparable to a cold one on Earth, and Ingenuity could have to withstand temperatures as low as -90 degrees Celsius. A challenge both for its structural integrity (many materials are not able to withstand such low temperatures, as NASA unfortunately recalled after the Challenger accident) and for the charge of its battery, responsible for maintaining the temperature and that, if not correctly isolated, it could fall apart very quickly.
The night is, therefore, the first major litmus test faced by Ingenuity, and although it is clear that the engineering team responsible for it will have taken all environmental factors into account for its design, we are talking about a Extremely hostile conditions, so the slightest miscalculation or any oversight, however irrelevant it may seem, can put an end (for now) with NASA’s plans to fly a helicopter on Mars.
#MarsHelicopter touchdown confirmed! Its 293 million mile (471 million km) journey aboard @NASAPersevere ended with the final drop of 4 inches (10 cm) from the rover’s belly to the surface of Mars today. Next milestone? Survive the night. https://t.co/TNCdXWcKWE pic.twitter.com/XaBiSNebua
– NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) April 4, 2021
If on the contrary, and as we all hope, Ingenuity withstands the freezing night temperatures of Mars, they will continue preparations for their first flight, planned in the first instance for April 11. Any incident, or even reasonable doubts, can postpone this date, and the same will happen with subsequent flights if the first is executed successfully. If this happy circumstance occurs, it is planned to try to execute up to four more flights during a period of 30 soles (Martian days).
The little helicopter has a very important mission: to see if we know enough about the surface of Mars to be able to fly such a device there. It has a camera and you will be able to send your recordings to the rover, which in turn will send them to Earth. Thus, if they complete their tests successfully, NASA scientists and engineers will be able to start working on future more ambitious projects, in which the successors of Ingenuity are able to develop more tasks, have greater autonomy, can rise further in surface, have more sensors, and so on.
And it is that an advanced flying device that accompanies a rover, can serve as assistance to it to collect information on the areas to be investigated by the rolling laboratory, explore inaccessible areas for the rove (ravines, mountains, etc.), carry out aerial surveys of areas for future landings (maybe even for the establishment of a first base in the coming decade)… Like the Flyer-1, although it only rose a few meters for a short distance, Ingenuity can be only the first step of aerial exploration of other planets.
Image: NASA / JPL – Caltech