Credit: NASA

 

On Mars, things are looking up for technology demonstrations that can aid future human exploration, not only to scout about the Red Planet – but also sustain human crews there.

NASA’s Perseverance rover has successfully deployed the Ingenuity Mars helicopter. The on-going good news is that the device has survived its first cold Martian night on its own.

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter can be seen on Mars as viewed by the Perseverance rover’s rear Hazard Camera on April 5, 2021. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

The 4-pound (1.8 kilograms) rotorcraft will be the first aircraft to attempt powered, controlled flight on another planet.

First-things-first

Until the helicopter placed its four legs onto the Martian surface, Ingenuity remained attached to the belly of the wheeled robot, receiving power from Perseverance, which touched down at Jezero Crater on February 18th.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In first-things-first fashion, the helicopter’s rotor blades, still stacked in alignment on top of each other, are to be released on April 7th. The blade span is just under 4 feet (1.2 meters).

A solar panel charges Lithium-ion batteries, providing enough energy for one 90-second flight per Martian day.

According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), if all goes well with a set of preflight checks, the mini-helicopter’s first spin-up to lift off will be no earlier than the evening of April 11th.

Ingenuity is the brainchild of JPL’s Bob Balaram. He worked with Simi Valley, California-based AeroVironment engineers from the group’s MacCready Works Advanced Solutions team since the 1990s to fabricate Ingenuity, including the rotor blades, landing gears, and the thermal enclosure for JPL’s avionics, sensors and software systems.

The location where NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will observe the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter’s attempt at powered controlled flight at Mars is called “Van Zyl Overlook.” Photo credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

AeroVironment designed, developed and then later successfully flew a solar unmanned aircraft in the Earth’s stratosphere – the closest air density match to that of the atmosphere of Mars.

Airfield flight tests

Within 30 Martian days, or sols (a Martian day is 24.6 hours), on the surface, Ingenuity is slated to conduct flight tests in the thin atmosphere of Mars from the middle of its 33-by-33-foot (10-by-10-meter) “airfield” – chosen for its flatness and lack of obstructions.

The Perseverance rover will use its suite of cameras to observe the flight characteristics of the solar-powered helicopter from “Van Zyl Overlook.”

With Ingenuity tests under its rotor blades complete, the Perseverance’s scientific exploration of Jezero Crater is to move into high gear.

MOXIE installation into Perseverance rover. Credit: R. Lannom/NASA/JPL-Caltech

Enter the “Oxygenator”

Still to come is yet another technology experiment – the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, better known as MOXIE.

MOXIE will showcase a way that future explorers might produce oxygen from the thin Martian atmosphere for propellant and for breathing.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Haystack Observatory, MIT and MIT AeroAstro teams is responsible for overall project leadership, scientific definition, laboratory characterization activities, operations on Mars, and, eventually, interpretation and publication of results.

Haystack’s Associate Director, Michael Hecht, is MOXIE’s principal investigator.

“MOXIE is actually slated to make oxygen for the first time right in the middle of helicopter month, April 17 or thereabouts,” said Hecht. “We’re one of the few instruments allowed to run at that time since the rover doesn’t have to move or deploy anything that could conceivably interrupt its readiness to be a communications link from helicopter to home,” he advised Inside Outer Space.

The size of a car battery, MOXIE weighs 37.7 pounds on Earth, 14.14 pounds on Mars. Approximately one hour of oxygen production per experiment will be scheduled intermittently over the duration of the mission.

MOXIE location.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Make note: oxygen generators that support human missions on Mars must be about 100 times larger – but the experiment breathes life into the prospect of larger units.

Aliveness and health checks

What’s the current status of MOXIE post-landing?

“MOXIE’s aliveness and health checks were successful and we are now looking ahead to our first oxygen production,” says Eric Daniel Hinterman, a member of the MOXIE team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“The exact date isn’t set but we hope it will be in the near future (i.e. during helicopter phase),” Hinterman told Inside Outer Space. “The helicopter takes first priority during these next few weeks, though, so our schedule is pretty up in the air, pun intended, as a result.”

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