Ingenuity Mars Helicopter reaches milestone in space

Ingenuity Mars Helicopter

The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter can be seen between the left and center wheels of the Perseverance Rover. | Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

One week into its near seven-month journey to Mars with the Perseverance rover, NASA‘s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter recharged its power system. This was the first time the helicopter was powered up and its batteries were charged while in space.

The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is stowed on Perseverance’s belly on the trip to Mars. Using the rover’s power supply, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter had its six Sony lithium-ion batteries charged to 35%. Once Ingenuity is deployed on Mars, its batteries will be charged by the helicopter’s solar panel.

The project helped determine a low-charge state is optimal for battery health during the trip to Mars.

“This was a big milestone, as it was our first opportunity to turn on Ingenuity and give its electronics a ‘test drive’ since we launched on July 30,” said Tim Canham, the operations lead for Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “Since everything went by the book, we’ll perform the same activity about every two weeks to maintain an acceptable state of charge.”

We talked about the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter in-depth with maxon SpaceLab’s Robin Phillips on a recent episode of The Robot Report Podcast. The helicopter will perform short flights, hopefully, and take aerial images while on Mars. But the main goal of this experiment is to test the concept for future drones in space.

The helicopter has flown in a simulated test environment inside the JPL laboratory. But whether it will lift off on Mars remains to be seen. The atmosphere on Mars is extremely thin, roughly comparable to the conditions on Earth at an altitude of 30 km (18.64 mi.).

Phillips said the helicopter should be viewed “as being the modern equivalent of the Sojourner rover — it’s just an engineering test. … That will enable future missions where you can be more ambitious and start attaching more science instruments [in addition to] a camera.”

The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter will have a 30-Martian-day (31-Earth-day) experimental flight-test window. The team estimates the helicopter can reach about 10 meters high and cover 300 meters per flight. It has autonomous capabilities, but the first few flights will be carefully scripted by controllers at NASA JPL.

The helicopter can fly as high as 15 feet and as far as 160 feet with the longest flight duration being 90 seconds. It spins its propellers between 2000 and 3000 RPMs.

“This charge activity shows we have survived launch and that so far we can handle the harsh environment of interplanetary space,” said MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL. “We have a lot more firsts to go before we can attempt the first experimental flight test on another planet, but right now we are all feeling very good about the future.”

Perseverance is expected to land on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021.

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