NASA will launch its latest Mars rover Perseverance from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida imminently with a small box-shaped helicopter attached.
After Perseverance lands in Jezero Crater on the Red Planet on 18 February, 2021, the plan is for the helicopter named Ingenuity to hover above the Martian terrain after that date.
NASA’s Ames Research Centre in California has tried to ensure Ingenuity can take off in a controlled manner in a thin Martian atmosphere that is equivalent to about 100,000 feet high on Earth – an altitude that no Earth-based helicopter has reached. In fact, no Earth-based helicopter has reached even half that distance.
Ingenuity has been designed to survive bitterly cold Martian nights where temperatures plunge to minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit. The helicopter has to operate largely on its own as pilot control isn’t possible due to the distance between Mars and Earth.
“We went along and we started realising this is realistic, this can happen, and that it could work. And when we reached that point it was like wow, this feels like one of those Wright Brothers moments in aviation history,” said Carlos Malpica, an aerospace engineer at Ames Research Centre.
If all goes well after its targeted landing on Mars, Ingenuity’s inaugural technology demonstration flight will echo the Wright Brothers’ 1903 achievement on Earth by making the first powered flight of an aircraft in another planet’s atmosphere.
Ingenuity is not the main focus of the expedition though. Perseverance’s main objective is to look for signs of life on Mars, digging up samples of dirt that could one day be returned to Earth for study.
“Perseverance is the most sophisticated rover NASA has ever sent to Mars, with a name that embodies NASA’s passion for taking on and overcoming challenges. It will search for signs of ancient microbial life, characterize the planet’s geology and climate, collect carefully selected and documented rock and sediment samples for possible return to Earth, and pave the way for human exploration beyond the Moon, ” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said.