NASA's Perseverance rover has special cargo: A first helicopter to test flight on Mars. Here's an overview of the facts.
How could we overlook a helicopter on Mars? With three Mars missions: NASA's new rover Perseverance, the UAE's Emirates Mars Mission, and China's Tianwen-1 all vying for 2020 launches – quite easily it seems.
But…a helicopter on Mars? Yes! It's happening!
It's heading for the Red Planet with that new American rover.
And it's called "Ingenuity."
What's in a name?
When NASA launched a "Name the Rover" essay contest in 2019, they received 28,000 submissions from school children across the United States.
The winning entry was submitted by a 13-year-old boy named Alexander Mather, who came up with the name "Perseverance."
An artist's impression of NASA's Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, on Mars, standing next to the new Mars rover, Perseverance
With so many entries, the American space agency decided to pick another winner, and name the helicopter as well.
That honor went to a high school student in Alabama, named Vaneeza Rupani.
Rupani wrote in her essay, "Ingenuity is what allows people to accomplish amazing things, and it allows us to expand our horizons to the edges of the universe."
The overall name for the mission is "Mars 2020."
One of a team
Ingenuity is essentially one of eight instruments on the rover, Perseverance, which will carry out science and technology experiments on Mars beginning February 2021. Unlike the other instruments, though, Ingenuity's main objective is to separate itself from the rover and move about independently.
The helicopter is a small autonomous aircraft that will ride to Mars strapped to the "belly" – as NASA puts it – of the rover.
The rover has four main scientific goals, such as determining whether life ever arose on Mars and characterizing the planet's climate and geology.
However, NASA also wants to try out technology, such as the helicopter, in preparation for future human and robotic missions on Mars.
When does it launch?
The Mars 2020 mission has a "launch window" from mid-July to mid-August 2020. It is set to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
Leaving Earth in mid-2020 means the journey, or "trajectory," to Mars will take a mere seven months instead of the usual nine.
When will it arrive?
It should arrive by February 18, 2021 at the Jezero Crater on Mars.
The Mission: another small step towards a giant leap
NASA describes Ingenuity as an attempt to demonstrate and test the first powered flight "on another world for the first time."
Which – if it succeeds – will be special. So far, missions to Mars have only ever landed on the planet. None have ever lifted off again, let alone returned to Earth.
Ultimately, that is exactly what space engineers want to achieve. Geologists want to return Martian rocks to Earth within the next 10 years. And as far as human exploration is concerned, we want to send people to Mars and bring them back.
To that end, Ingenuity will perform a series of test flights during a "30-Martian-day experimental window" in the spring of 2021.
The first test will involve the helicopter taking off a few meters from the ground, hovering in the air for about 20 to 30 seconds, and then landing.
If all goes well, this will be the first powered flight in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars, where the atmospheric density is less than 1% of Earth's. A thin atmosphere can affect flight in a number of ways, especially during take-off and landing.
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For instance, NASA had to make the helicopter as light as possible. Additionally, to generate lift, the rotor system must spin incredibly fast — between 2,000 and 3,000 revolutions per minute – which also requires a lot of energy.
Further tests will challenge the helicopter to fly farther and farther, in incremental steps, and at higher altitudes.
Released from the belly of a rover
As mentioned, Ingenuity will be strapped to the "belly" of the rover on the trip to Mars. For protection, it will be covered by a shield during descent and landing.
NASA's Mars rover Perseverance raised from the ground, showing the Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, strapped to the rover's "belly"
When it's go time, the shield covering will drop and a NASA Earth team will release the helicopter remotely. Hopefully, this will deliver the helicopter safely to the surface of Mars.
Four or more facts about Ingenuity
Ingenuity's technical specifications are integral to its mission.
It weighs less than 1.8 kilograms (4 pounds). Its rotors are about 1.2 meters (4 feet) from tip to tip, with a similar blade span.
The helicopter will be powered by solar panel charged Lithium-ion batteries.
It may be able to fly for up to 90 seconds and reach distances of almost 300 meters (980 feet) per flight at about 3 to 4.5 meters (10 to 15 feet) above the ground.
Ingenuity is autonomous – completing its missions with limited remote human input. It should take off, fly, and land with minimal prior commands sent in advance from Earth.
Don't forget, there's no "real-time" communication between Earth and Mars. Radio signals can take between 4 and 24 minutes to travel between the two planets.
And did you know?...
You can even make your very own paper Mars helicopter.