It’s Science Wednesday – and it’s an exciting time in the realm of planetary science! On February 18, 2021, NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars in order to explore the Jezero Crater. The primary mission is an astrobiological one: to identify environments capable of supporting life as well as to search for evidence of possible past microbial life. In order to carry out its mission, the car-sized rover is carrying 7 primary payload instruments, 19 cameras and two microphones. It’s also carrying a mini-helicopter, Ingenuity, an experimental aircraft that will attempt the first powered flight on another planet! During its mission, Perseverance will not only explore the surface of the crater, but also carry and store rock and soil samples for future pick-up, as well as test oxygen production from the atmosphere to prepare for future human missions.
The solar-powered mini-helicopter (drone), Ingenuity, is only 4 lbs (1.8 kg) with blades made of carbon fiber, built to be light-weight and to withstand the extreme cold. The drone was deployed from the underbelly of Perseverance a few days ago to start powering its batteries and then was left on its own to see if it could withstand the extremely cold Martian nights. So far, so good! After a series of more checks this week, the first attempt at flight is scheduled for Sunday, April 11. For the first flight, the helicopter will take off a few feet from the ground, hover in the air for up to 30 seconds, and land. After that, there are plans for additional experimental flights of incrementally farther distances and higher altitudes. Meanwhile, the rover will provide support during flight operations by taking images and collecting environmental data, as well as hosting the base station that enables the helicopter to communicate with mission control back on Earth.
Fun fact about Ingenuity? It carries a tiny swatch of fabric from a wing of the Wright brothers’ Flyer, the plane that made the first powered flight on Earth back in December 1903.