NASA Engineers have selected a location for the first Martian airfield

NASA’s Perseverance Rover landed on February 18th and recently began to move. Mounted on the belly of the rover is Ingenuity, a small, 1.8 KG helicopter. Ingenuity will attempt the first powered and controlled flight on another planet no earlier than the first week of April.

Even though Martian gravity is just 38% that of Earth’s, with just 1% of the atmosphere of Earth, developing a vehicle capable of flying on Mars was no simple task for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Ingenuity has two, 1.2 meter counter-rotating rotors capable of spinning at 2,400 RPM. The solar-charged electric helicopter is capable of flying for a maximum of 90 seconds at a time, with every flight being entirely without real-time inputs. The 5-20 minute delay means that each flight will have completed minutes before the Ingenuity team receives any information about the flight.

The Ingenuity Test Campaign

The team at NASA’s JPL has a 30-day test flight campaign planned. The first flight will only include a 20-30 second hover a few feet above the surface. Later flights, up to a maximum of 5 during the campaign, will see Ingenuity flying both higher and over a greater distance. While a 30-day test campaign may seem short- the Martian environment will be tough on the helicopter. With temperatures ranging between -199 degrees Fahrenheit to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, Ingenuity will be exposed to drastic temperature changes each Martian day. Think about how much your phone battery can decrease in extreme heat and cold. Ingenuity’s 6 lithium-Ion batteries are similar to the batteries of smartphones.

Ingenuity helicopter before being installed on Perseverance. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The flights will all be conducted within a limited range, up to 160 feet from the helipad. Ingenuity will return to the airfield to land at the end of each flight, to ensure a clear area for a successful landing. Each step that the Ingenuity team takes towards flight is a massive achievement. Perseverance has recently found an acceptable airfield. The requirements for the airfield included no more than a 4-degree average slope and minimal rocks exceeding 2 inches in height.

Ingenuity has two cameras on board, one black and white for navigation, and one color camera to capture terrain images. A successful flight could open the door to future flight campaigns on Mars in both robotic and human missions to Mars.

More details related to upcoming activities with Ingenuity will be revealed during NASA’s media briefing on March 23rd.

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