With blessings from Wright Brothers, Ingenuity aims for 1st flight by Apr 8

Scientiests have identified the airfield for Ingenuity's first flight attempt. (Nasa)
When Wright Brothers first tested their ingenious aircraft design in December 1903, they had barely imagined that in just over 100 years there invention would make strides not just on the earth but also on another planet. The Ingenuity helicopter, inspired by a concept similar to the test flight is likely to make its first powered attempt on the mars by April 8.

The copter at the moment remains attached to the belly of the massive Perseverance rover after travelling over 200 million km from the earth to mars landing in a daring operation in the Jazero crater on February 18.

Earlier this week, the rover deployed its guitar case-shaped graphite composite debris shield that protected Ingenuity during the landing. The rover currently is in transit to the “airfield” where the Ingenuity will attempt to fly. Once deployed, the Ingenuity will have 30 Martian days, or sols, (31 Earth days) to conduct its test flight campaign. "I’m on my way to the “airfield” where the #MarsHelicopter will attempt its first test flight. A couple more drives should get me there," tweeted the rover as it identified the launch field for the copter.

If the rotorcraft lands successfully and remains operable, up to four more flights could be attempted. (JPL)

Deploying the helicopter

Before attempting its maiden powered flight on the mars, the Ingenuity must be squarely in the middle of its airfield – a 33-by-33-foot (10-by-10-metre) patch of Martian land which has been identified by scientists. The identified patch of land is flat and has no critical obstructions. Once the helicopter and rover teams confirm that the Perseverance is situated exactly where they want it to be inside the airfield, the elaborate process to deploy the helicopter on the surface of the mars will begin. 

“As with everything with the helicopter, this type of deployment has never been done before,” Farah Alibay, Mars Helicopter integration lead for the Perseverance rover, said in a statement. “Once we start the deployment, there will be no turning back. All activities are closely coordinated, irreversible, and dependent on each other. If there is even a hint that something isn’t going as expected, we may decide to hold off for a sol or more until we have a better idea of what is going on,” he added.

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), the helicopter’s deployment will take about 6 Martian days where the team will first activate a bolt-breaking device, releasing a locking mechanism that helped hold the helicopter firmly against the rover’s belly following which a cable-cutting pyrotechnic device will be fired, enabling the mechanised arm that holds the Ingenuity to begin rotating the helicopter out of its horizontal position as the copter deploys its landing legs.

"During the third sol of the deployment sequence, a small electric motor will finish rotating the Ingenuity until it latches, bringing the helicopter completely vertical. During the fourth sol, the final two landing legs will snap into position," Nasa said. On the fifth sol of deployment, the team will use the final opportunity to utilise the Perseverance as a power source and charge the Ingenuity’s six battery cells.

One of Ingenuity’s first objectives, when it is rolled out on the surface, is just to survive the frigid Martian night for the first time. (JPL)

Sol 6 will be critical as it will entail confirming that the Ingenuity’s four legs are firmly on the surface of Jezero Crater, that the rover did, indeed, drive about 16 feet (about 5 metres) away, and that both helicopter and the rover were communicating via their onboard radios.

History in the making

Once the sequence is complete, the two machines will begin relay transmissions with each other as codes are punched in from the earth. The team at JPL will then work an extensive flight plan considering local wind patterns plus measurements taken by the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer powering the rotors to 2,537 rpm and – if all final self-checks look good — lift-off.

"Several hours after the first flight has occurred, the Perseverance will downlink the Ingenuity’s first set of engineering data and, possibly, images and video from the rover’s Navigation Cameras and Mastcam-Z. From the data downlinked that first evening after the flight, the Mars Helicopter team expects to be able to determine if its first attempt to fly at the mars was a success," Nasa said.

The copter will remain attached to the belly of the rover before scientists roll it out on the Martian surface. (JPL)

In attendance on Mars: Wright Brothers

Just as JPL sent a coded message in its parachute that landed the rover on Mars, the ingenuity helicopter is carrying something that was used by the Orville and Wilbur brothers in their test flight over 100 years ago — a piece of fabric from that first aircraft. A small amount of the material that covered one of the wings of the Wright brothers’ aircraft, known as the Flyer, during the first flight, is now aboard Ingenuity. An insulative tape was used to wrap the small swatch of fabric around a cable located underneath the helicopter’s solar panel.

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