Before starting to look for signs of bacteria on Mars long ago, NASA’s Perseverance aircraft will first perform the most exciting piece of technology in its mission: flying a helicopter.
Packaged under the belly of Perseverance, an auto-sized robotic vehicle that landed on Mars last month, is the Ingenuity, a 4-pound mini helicopter that proves that it is possible to fly on another planet.
NASA officials announced on Tuesday that they had chosen the site for this extraterrestrial flight demonstration – just north of where it landed.
The operator is driving to that location, where it will carefully drop the Ingenuity and then turn around to observe the flight. Ingenuity is scheduled to take off no sooner than April 8, though Bob Balaram, Ingenuity’s chief engineer, said that could either go up or back in a few days.
“There will be 31 days on Earth trying to be the first helicopter to fly on another planet,” said Lori Glaze, NASA’s director of planetary science.
NASA officials have described this as the “Wright Brothers moment” for space exploration and on Tuesday the agency revealed that the Ingenuity included an artifact from the first Wright plane to take off from Kitty. Hawk, NC, in 1903.
“We are very proud to be honored with the pilot aircraft long ago carrying a small piece of cloth,” said Mr Balaram.
Until 1997, all spacecraft brought to the Martian surface were stationary landers. But that year, the Pathfinder mission included something revolutionary for NASA: a robot with wheels. That explorer vehicle, the Sojourner, was roughly the size of a short filing cabinet, and planetary scientists quickly realized the benefits of being able to navigate the Mars landscape. Four other NASA people including Perseverance have followed the red planet.
The ingenuity is essentially an aerial replica of Sojourner, a demonstration of a new technology that could be used more widely in later missions. Ingenuity’s body is about the size of a soft ball with four spindly legs sticking out. Two sets of wings, each about four feet long from head to toe, will rotate in opposite directions to create lift.
Flying on Mars is not a trivial endeavor. There isn’t a lot of air to push in to generate lift. On the Martian surface, the atmosphere is only 1/100 as dense as Earth. Lower gravity – a third of what you feel here – aids in movement in the air. But taking off from the Martian surface is comparable to flying 100,000 feet above Earth. No helicopters on our planet fly that high, and it’s more than twice the typical jet flight altitude.
Since Perseverance arrived on Mars on 18 February in a 30-mile-wide crater named Jezero, engineers have inspected the spacecraft and its equipment. That includes the first few short drives and laser beams that vaporize rocky soil to identify chemical elements.
Two microphones on the Perseverance captured some of the red planet’s sounds, including the rustling of wind, the clatter of a laser when it crashed into a rock about 10 feet away, and the metallic chime and scratch of the driver’s six wheels as they roll around on terrain.
“Things are going very well so far,” said Kenneth Farley, last week during a virtual presentation at the Moon and Planetary Science Conference. “But this is mainly the test phase. We haven’t really done enough scientific research yet. “
Scientists have detected signs of wind erosion on some rocks, Dr. Farley said. The other rocks look as if they were shaped by water current. “This is quite promising for our research,” he said. The scientists also saw pore-shaped rocks, possibly volcanic rocks that hold air bubbles in them as they cool.
Major scientific exploration will begin in early summer after the Dexterity tests are over.
Perseverance cannot go straight to the river delta in the Jezero belt because there is a dangerous field of dunes in the middle. Instead, it will drive around the dunes.
Team members are still deciding to go north, a faster route or go south, which looks more geologically attractive as it includes locations where mineral deposits are likely to be ruined. area of the river delta.