NASA has plenty of experience operating wheeled rovers on Mars, but it's never tried to fly a helicopter on the red planet before. The Ingenuity rotorcraft will get a chance to make history this month by flying the Martian skies, but first the Perseverance rover had to drop it off on the ground.
As of Saturday, Ingenuity is on its own. "Mars helicopter touchdown confirmed," NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab tweeted along with a photo showing the helicopter a short distance away from the rover.
Ingenuity was perched under the belly of the Perseverance rover, and the process of deploying it took nearly a week. The rover's cameras have given us visual benchmarks of the progress. The latest image of Ingenuity all alone highlights how small it is against the wide landscape.
After letting Ingenuity loose, the rover carefully rolled away to allow the helicopter's solar panels to recharge its battery and keep it warm in the cold Martian conditions. "Next milestone? Survive the night," NASA JPL tweeted.
"The Ingenuity team will be anxiously waiting to hear from the helicopter the next day," said Ingenuity chief engineer Bob Balaram in a status update on Friday.
It's been fascinating to chart the chopper's progress. On March 31, NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab shared a look at Ingenuity with all four legs reaching out. "We're in the home stretch. The Mars helicopter has lowered all four legs and is in position to touch down on the Martian surface," JPL tweeted. "Once it's fully ready, NASA Perseverance will release it gently to the surface."
The solar-powered Ingenuity rotorcraft is a high-risk, high-reward technology demonstration, an experiment that could mark the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.
Earlier this month, Perseverance shed a protective pan that kept the helicopter safe during travel, giving us a first look at the flying machine tucked under the rover's belly on the red planet. This kicked off a series of operations involving driving the rover over to the designated "airfield" spot where it set Ingenuity down on the surface before moving away and heading for an overlook.
The multi-step process of delivering Ingenuity involved releasing a locking mechanism, rotating the machine into position and deploying the spring-loaded legs, none of which happens quickly. Ingenuity remained connected to Perseverance for power during that time.
On March 28, we got an early peek at Ingenuity's movements, which have an origami-like look to them. Perseverance snapped an image of the helicopter tilted to the side. On March 29, a view showed two of the landing legs popped out and the helicopter oriented to an upright position.
Now that Ingenuity has been set free, it could attempt its first test flight, a short hover, as early as April 8. We're expecting more images from Perseverance as it keeps track of the tiny chopper's efforts.
In a nod to Earth aviation history, Ingenuity carries with it a tiny piece of fabric from the Wright Brothers' 1903 Flyer. May it bring good luck to an ambitious helicopter facing the challenging conditions of Mars.
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