Story at a glance
- The Perseverance rover successfully released the Ingenuity helicopter to the surface of Mars.
- The helicopter could take flight as early as April 11.
- NASA is hoping to carry out up to five test flights.
NASA is one step closer to carrying out the first controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet.
When the space agency’s Perseverance rover successfully touched down on Mars in February the car-sized robotic explorer was equipped with a small helicopter dubbed Ingenuity in its belly.
On Saturday, the 4-pound helicopter safely separated from Perseverance, where it has been stored since the rover launched from Earth in July, and dropped 4 inches to the Martian surface.
#MarsHelicopter touchdown confirmed! Its 293 million mile (471 million km) journey aboard @NASAPersevere ended with the final drop of 4 inches (10 cm) from the rover's belly to the surface of Mars today. Next milestone? Survive the night. https://t.co/TNCdXWcKWE pic.twitter.com/XaBiSNebua— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) April 4, 2021
Ingenuity also successfully survived its first night on the freezing-cold surface of Mars — where temperatures can plunge as low as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit — a major milestone in the aircraft’s journey toward its historic flight.
The helicopter could take flight as early as April 11.
“This is the first time that Ingenuity has been on its own on the surface of Mars,” MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.
“But we now have confirmation that we have the right insulation, the right heaters, and enough energy in its battery to survive the cold night, which is a big win for the team,” Aung said.
Ingenuity relied on the rover’s power system but now depends on internal heaters and uses a solar panel to charge its batteries.
Teddy Tzanetos, deputy operations lead for the Ingenuity Mars helicopter, said Ingenuity will take off and hover about 15 feet off the ground before landing. He said the team is looking to accomplish an average of about 90 seconds for up to five test flights.
“Our goal, plain and simple, is to prove we can fly on Mars. Once we do that, we hope that this is going to blow the doors open for the future of martian exploration, unlocking that aerial dimension we think is going to be extremely exciting for humanity and for scientists, NASA and the larger exploration community,” Tzanetos said during a Q&A Monday.
Perseverance, meanwhile, will continue its two-year mission roaming the planet’s surface in search of signs of ancient life. The rover landed on Mars’s Jezero Crater, the site of an ancient lake that existed nearly 4 billion years ago.
The robotic explorer is equipped with a drill, a robotic arm and several other sophisticated scientific tools that will enable it to collect rock and dirt samples that will be picked up by a future mission to Mars and brought back to Earth.
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