Keep Your Fingers Crossed As Mars Helicopter Takes Off on Sunday, April 12

Caroline de Braganza

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(Image of Mars by Ragobar from Pixabay)

How far science has progressed since Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969!

Ingenuity, the little helicopter that successfully did a spin-test on April 8, 48 Martian days after arriving on Mars attached to the belly of the Perseverance rover, will take its first test flight on Sunday, April 12.

NASA TV will broadcast live as the team receives the data and commentary begins at 3:30 a.m. EDT (12:30 a.m. PDT).

This will be another nail-biting episode in the Mars 2020 Mission, as it was on February 18, because there’s a time delay of 12 minutes in signals between Earth and Mars.

Who came up with the names Perseverance and Ingenuity?

NASA continued with their tradition of a nationwide competition for schoolkids to come up with names for the rover, as they did with the Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers.

Virginia seventh-grader Alex Mather won in March 2020 with the name “Perseverance”.

His essay submission ended:

"We are a species of explorers, and we will meet many setbacks on the way to Mars. However, we can persevere. We — not as a nation, but as humans — will not give up. The human race will always persevere into the future."

Alabama high schooler Vaneeza Rupani submitted "Ingenuity" for the rover-naming contest. NASA officials liked it so much they gave the name to the mission's helicopter.

Flight plan

Before taking off, Ingenuity will go through pre-flight checks. Once completed, it will take about 12 seconds to spin the rotor blades up to 2,537 rpm, and after technical adjustments, the flight test will begin. It should take 6 seconds to reach the maximum height of 10 feet, where it will hover for 30 seconds.

The shortest flight ever—48 seconds.

“Mars is hard not only when you land, but when you try to take off from it and fly around, too. It has significantly less gravity, but less than 1% the pressure of our atmosphere at its surface. Put those things together, and you have a vehicle that demands every input be right.” - MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at JPL

To achieve lift in an atmosphere that's one percent the density of Earth's could revolutionize the way we explore other planets.

Fingers crossed, all goes well!

If this experiment works, the team will test Ingenuity at incrementally farther distances and higher altitudes. The test flight program will extend over 31 Earth days (30 sols, or Martian days).

How Ingenuity will activate

Perseverance will receive the day’s instructions from Earth via a receiving antenna on Sunday morning. The rover is parked 215 feet away from Ingenuity on *Van Zyl’s Overlook. An hour later it will transmit the commands to the helicopter.

* (Named after Stellenbosch graduate Jakob van Zyl, former Director for Solar System Exploration NASA-JPL, and Associate Director for Project Formulation and Strategy at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who passed away in 2020.)

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(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech) Jakob van Zyl (left) and Dr. Lori Glaze, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, monitor the progress of the InSight lander as it touched down on Mars in 2018.

“The purpose of Ingenuity is to demonstrate technologies needed for flying in the Martian atmosphere. If successful, these technologies could enable other advanced robotic flying vehicles that might be included in future robotic and human missions to Mars.” - NASA.

Will we find life on Mars?

Over the next few years, Perseverance will collect 30 rock and soil samples in sealed tubes. In the 2030s these will travel back to Earth for lab analysis.

"We astrobiologists have been dreaming about this mission for decades," said Mary Voytek, head of NASA's astrobiology program.

Although indications from past exploration are that Mars was once habitable around 3.5 billion years ago, it will be a long wait for Perseverance to provide evidence the planet was actually inhabited.

Another experiment will involve an instrument that can convert oxygen from Mars' primarily carbon dioxide atmosphere, through the process of electrolysis to produce 10 grams of oxygen an hour.

If successful, humans won't need to carry their own oxygen, which is crucial for rocket fuel and for breathing.

But for a short while on Sunday, everyone will hold their breath awaiting the results of Ingenuity’s first test flight!

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