Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Fact Check

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The Ingenuity helicopter is expected to fly next month.

NASA

Ingenuity, the $80 million small helicopter that hitchhiked a ride to Mars on the Perseverance rover, will make its first flight early next month, likely no earlier than 8 April, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) announced today. If successful, it would be the first controlled, powered flight on another planet.

After Perseverance’s landing on 18 February, the Ingenuity team scouted the surrounding terrain for a flat, hazard-free airfield where the 1.8-kilogram helicopter could safely operate. It quickly became apparent that a 10-meter-square patch due north of the rover would serve perfectly, said Håvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot at JPL. It was “right in front of our noses.”

The rover is currently driving to the center of the airfield and should arrive in a few days. It will then take about 6 days to deploy the helicopter from its belly: breaking bindings, rotating to a vertical position, and extending spindly legs. Finally, with the helicopter’s feet hovering 13 centimeters above the surface, Perseverance will drop Ingenuity and then, within a day, roll away. A quick drive is essential, as Ingenuity can last only one frigid martian night before its solar panel must be exposed to sunlight. “The helicopter needs photons,” said Farah Alibay, Perseverance integration lead for Ingenuity at JPL.

The rover will attempt to reach a safe overlook 60 meters away, where it can capture Ingenuity’s flight with its cameras. Ingenuity will return the favor, photographing Perseverance as it goes. A technology demonstration, Ingenuity will then have 30 martian days to operate before Perseverance resumes its science mission. During 1 week of commissioning, the chopper will test its motor and wobble its dual, counter-rotating 1.2-meter blades. And, with a good weather forecast, it will then lift off, its rotors running at 2537 revolutions per minute, and climb 3 meters, make a little turn, and then descend over the course of 30 seconds.

It will be a historic moment, the first time such a rotorcraft has flown on another planet, let alone the thin atmosphere of Mars. After that, the helicopter’s team is planning four more flights, ranging over a flight zone 60 meters long and reaching up to 5 meters, taking photographs of the surface along the way. If the helicopter can fly out and return, ground controllers might get more ambitious and “try to stretch our capabilities” for its final two flights, Grip said.

This past weekend, Perseverance dropped the shielding covering Ingenuity on its belly.

NASA

While Ingenuity flies, Perseverance’s science team will continue to investigate the region near the landing site, which they named after Octavia E. Butler, the American science fiction author. Many of its scientific instruments have made their first measurements, targeting nearby rocks. As expected, they have the look of rocks formed from lava and altered by water, but it remains unclear whether they formed in place, which could allow the crater to be dated, or whether they were deposited after the ancient lake that once filled the crater. That mystery is unlikely to be resolved until instruments mounted on Perseverance’s arm get a close view of the rocks, which won’t come until after Ingenuity’s flights.

The most prominent feature of the landing region, by far, is clear: “Boulders are everywhere,” Ken Farley, the mission’s project scientist and a geologist at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), said at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference last week. Some are leveled off by wind; one is shaped like a harbor seal. The dark crater floor around the rover is also more fractured and less distinct than imaging from space suggested, meaning the team will need to hunt for an ideal site to study its relationship to the rocks below it, said Bethany Ehlmann, a Caltech planetary scientist and member of the science team. Meanwhile, boulders perched on low hills in the distance seem to align with a distinctive carbonate signal seen from space, she said, suggesting that landscape is more rugged and coherent than surrounding terrain, allowing it to resist weathering.

The rover will have to circumvent a hilly region to its northwest, named Séítah, to reach the base of the fossilized delta that brought it to Jezero crater, Chris Herd, a science team member and geologist at the University of Alberta, said at LPSC. “It’s full of dunes and treacherous for driving.” The team is currently deciding whether to take a clockwise or counterclockwise route around the dunes; both routes would provide compelling targets for drilling this summer, including what look like layered sedimentary remnants of a once more extensive delta. A decision on the route is likely to come after the Ingenuity flights.

Right now, it’s uncertain whether the helicopter’s final few flights could assist in the rover’s science goals. But no matter what, Ingenuity will ultimately be left behind, its batteries failing and communication relay lost as the rover starts a drilling spree that should see it collect 20 rock samples and reach the crater rim within the next 2 years. But this robot-turned-monument will have a bit of company where it rests, NASA revealed today: Taped beneath the helicopter’s solar panel is a square of unbleached muslin, the size of a postage stamp, taken from the original Wright Flyer, the first powered aircraft to stay aloft on Earth.

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