NASA has announced more details about the long-awaited first flight of Mars Rover Fortitude, a companion to Helicopter Ingenuity. The tiny helicopter will not make its first flight before April 8, which will be the first time an aircraft will fly to another planet.
Right now, Ingenuity is still attached to the underside of the rover. Over the weekend, a shield of debris protecting the floor of the rover was dropped during the landing, which is the first step to deploy the rover.
Now, the rover will drive to the chosen location, nicknamed the airfield, which is a flat, clear patch of land from which the helicopter can safely fly. The rover will carefully deploy the helicopter to the surface, then drive it at a safe distance to take it away.
“Once we firmly cut the cord and dropped those last five inches to the surface, we want our big friend to drive as soon as possible so that we can get the sun’s rays on our solar panel and Start recharging your batteries, “Bob Balaram, chief engineer of Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement.
Because this technology is so new, the team is taking it slowly and investigating it at every stage of the process. “As with everything with helicopters, this type of deployment has never been done before,” said Farah Alibay, Mars Helicopter Integration for Perseverance Rover. “Once we start the deployment, there is no retreat. All activities are closely coordinated, immutable and dependent on each other. If there is even an indication that something is not happening as expected, we may decide to hold off for a sol or longer until we have a better idea of what is going on. “
The plan is to keep the first flight simple, and then perform increasingly complex maneuvers in future flights. For this first flight, the goal is for the helicopter to fly, to a height of three meters to rise in the air, to hover in place for 30 seconds and make a turn and then land.
It sounds simple, but on a Mars mission, even simple tasks are difficult. Due to the delay in communication between Earth and Mars, NASA personnel cannot supervise the flight in real time. Instead, they would have to send a series of instructions to the helicopter, which would give them autonomy. The helicopter does this by taking images below ground at a rate of 30 images per second, which it can use to track its movements on the surface. This image data is combined with data from its second sensor so that a small adjustment can be made to keep it flying directly into the air at a rate of 500 per second.
If everything goes according to plan, engineering data about the flight should be available within a few hours, and possibly images and videos captured by the rover as well. If all of this sounds good, the team can plan for its next flight.
“Mars is tough,” said Mimi Aung, project manager of Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. “Our plan is to work out what the Red Planet throws at us in the same way we’ve faced every challenge in the last six years – together, tenacity and a lot of hard work, and a little bit of ease.”