[Update: Blades Unlocked] How NASA’s Mars Helicopter Ingenuity will be deployed onto the surface

The Mars Helicopter Ingenuity is an exciting new development in planetary exploration. The ability to have powered, controlled flights on another planet opens up new possibilities for future robotic and, eventually, human missions. Years of work have led up to Ingenuitity’s first flight, no earlier than April 11th, and the teams at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) are currently working through the helicopter’s 10-day long deployment process.

Deployment Timeline

Perseverance lands on Mars with Ingenuity – 18 February 2021

Perseverance landed in the Jezero Crater. The Ingenuity helicopter was secured snugly to the belly of the rover and protected by a debris shield

Perseverance searches for acceptable airfield

Shortly after landing, the search for an acceptable airfield for Ingenuity began. The teams at NASA’s JPL found that Perseverance had landed directly next to an acceptably flat location with few obstacles. A perfect airfield for the first Martian flight.

View of the airfield and flight zone from orbit. Credit: NASA HiRISE

Debris shield released – 21 March 2021

The debris shield, which protected Ingenuity from the rocks and dust of the Martian surface during landing, was released. This is the first of many steps to prepare Ingenuity for deploying to the surface.

Ingenuity on the belly of Perseverance, with the Debris shield on the ground. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Perseverance Makes its way to center of airfield

The 10ft x 10ft airfield, clear of rocks and obstacles, is where Ingenuity will start and end each of its five possible flights. The little helicopter will fly up to 5 flights from here. Each flight will get longer and more complex to test what is possible with a flying drone on another planet.

NASA previews first flight of Ingenuity – 23 March 2021

During this event, NASA revealed the earliest possible flight date, April 8th, and announced the name of the location which Perseverance will observe the flight of Ingenuity, the Van Zyl Overlook. They also revealed that a piece from the Wright brothers’ first aircraft is attached to Ingenuity, for the first powered flight on another planet.

Ingenuity deployment system unlocked – 28 March 2021

Ingenuity Rotated to Vertical – 29 March 2021

Final two landing legs deploy – 30 March 2021

Two of the legs are fixed in position, but the other two had to be folded up in order to allow proper clearance for rotation toward the surface and fitment in the debris shield. These legs have been moved into their flight position.

Ingenuity charges batteries to 100%

During the ride to Mars, Perseverance periodically charged the batteries on Ingenuity to extend their life as long as possible. They have been charged fully before deployment to the surface. Now Ingenuity will be reliant on the batteries and its solar panels.

Perseverance severs connection with Ingenuity

The connection that has allowed Perseverance to charge Ingenuity has been cleanly severed. Ingenuity will continue to communicate wirelessly with Perseverance.

Perseverance drops Ingenuity to Surface – 3 April 2021

Ingenuity has been released, and dropped to the surface of Mars.

Testing Ingenuity Deployment System. Credit: NASA

Perseverance drives off of Ingenuity

This needs to occur within about 24 hours of Ingenuity deploying on the surface in order to keep all the helicopter systems online and allow them to keep Ingenuity’s batteries charged with solar power.

Ingenuity Blades Unlocked – 8 April 2021

The blades on Mars Helicopter Ingenuity have been unlocked from their transport position and can now spin freely. The Ingenuity team has not yet spun up the blades. Before the first flight, they will spin the blades to different speeds to verify the system. Dust is already building up on the solar panels and blades. Dust build-up on the panels reduces the rate at which Ingenuity can charge its batteries. This dust is one of the many challenges of the Martian environment that the Ingenuity team designed Ingenuity to be able to withstand.

Future Deployment Events

Perseverance make it’s way to the Van Zyl Overlook

Perseverance will be positioned in the Van Zyl Overlook to act as a ground station and provide an external view for the flight of Ingenuity.

Ingenuity Takes flight No Earlier Than April 11

The first data will arrive to earth on April 12th.

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