Mars 2020: NASA will fly a helicopter across the Martian surface
This week marks the 30-day milestone until the launch window of July 20-August 11, 2020 opens for NASA's Perseverance rover and its journey to Mars.
For nearly 20 years, NASA has been sending out robotic rovers to the Red Planet where they roamed the dusty surface on their own for years.
However, the latest addition to the rover family will have a tiny companion by its side, or rather hovering above it.
NASA is testing out its ability to fly a helicopter on another planet with the upcoming mission to Mars as the Ingenuity helicopter hitches a ride along with the rover to the Red Planet. Ingenuity will be strapped up to the Perseverance rover's belly for the ride, covered by a shield to protect it during landing.
Once the duo has landed on Mars in February, 2021, the shield covering will drop and Ingenuity will separate from its robotic companion.
Read more in our countdown series:
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After it detaches itself from the rover, Ingenuity will fly solo in a series of test flights. The pair will be apart by at least 160 feet before they each start doing their own thing, although Perseverance will still keep a watchful eye on its sidekick as it records the helicopter's first attempts at flight using its onboard cameras.
"The thing that has me the most excited as the NASA administrator is getting ready to watch a helicopter fly on another world," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a press conference that previewed the mission on June 17. "That's something that's never been done before in human history, and here we are."
Over the course of 30 Martian days (a day on Mars is about 40 minutes longer than it is on Earth), a team of NASA engineers on the ground will test out Ingenuity's ability to fly. But they're going to take things slow.
For its first flight, the helicopter will take off a few feet off the ground and hover in the air for around 20 to 30 seconds. Although brief, those first seconds of flight will be considered a major milestone as the first powered flight in the thin Martian atmosphere, much different than our own world. Mars' atmosphere is less than one percent the density of Earth's atmosphere.
After proving it can fly, the Ingenuity helicopter will attempt more flights, each one with further distance and a higher altitude than the one before it.
"Getting it to Mars, getting it safely off the vehicle, we're going to learn a lot," Matt Wallace, deputy project manager for the Mars 2020 mission, said during the press conference. "We are not looking for an extensive and ambitious return from this technology, we're looking to learn those first few things that we need to learn."
The helicopter could fly for up to 90 seconds, to distances of almost 980 feet at a time and about 10 to 15 feet above the ground.
Ingenuity weighs about four pounds on Earth, and will weigh 1.5 pounds on Mars. It is powered through solar panels, that charge up its lithium-ion batteries for one 90-second flight per Martian day.
The Perseverance rover will join Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars back in August, 2012, and is still roaming the Red Planet to this day.
NASA previously sent two other rovers to Mars, Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on the Red Planet in January, 2004. Spirit ended its mission in 2010 — way past its planned 90-day expedition on the planet — while Opportunity tragically lost contact with Earth in 2018 after a massive dust storm swept over Mars.
The goal of the Perseverance mission will be to look for clues of ancient life on Mars, and understand the history of the planet that scientists believed was once a wet, habitable world.
The mission will also test out conditions for possible human exploration of Mars by trialing a method of producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, characterizing environmental conditions such as water and dust on Mars, and looking for resources.
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