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Headed to the Red Planet with the Perseverance rover, the pioneering Ingenuity helicopter is powered up for the first time in interplanetary space as part of a systems check.
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter received a checkout and recharge of its power system on Friday, 7 August, one week into its near seven-month journey to Mars with the Perseverance rover.
This marks the first time the helicopter has been powered up and its batteries have been charged in the space environment.
During the eight-hour operation, the performance of the rotorcraft’s six lithium-ion batteries was analysed as the team brought their charge level up to 35 per cent. The project has determined a low charge state is optimal for battery health during the cruise to Mars.
Tim Canham, the operations lead for Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in southern California, said, “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.”
The two-kilogram helicopter – a combination of specially designed components and off-the-shelf parts – is currently stowed on Perseverance’s belly and receives its charge from the rover’s power supply.
“Since everything went by the book, we’ll perform the same activity about every two weeks to maintain an acceptable state of charge,” Canham added.
Once Ingenuity is deployed on Mars’ surface after Perseverance touches down, its batteries will be charged solely by the helicopter’s own solar panel. If Ingenuity survives the cold Martian nights during its preflight checkout, the team will proceed with testing.
MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter project manager at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said, “This charge activity shows we have survived launch and that so far we can handle the harsh environment of interplanetary space.”
The small craft will have a 30-Martian-day (31-Earth-day) experimental flight-test window. If it succeeds, Ingenuity will prove that powered, controlled flight by an aircraft can be achieved at Mars, enabling future Mars missions to potentially add an aerial dimension to their explorations with second-generation rotorcraft.
Managed by California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, JPL built and manages the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter for NASA. Lockheed Martin Space provided the Mars Helicopter Delivery System.
Perseverance is a robotic scientist weighing just under 1,025 kilograms.
The rover’s astrobiology mission will search for signs of past microbial life. It will characterise the planet’s climate and geology, collect samples for future return to Earth, and pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet.
The Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission is part of a larger program that includes missions to the moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.
Charged with returning astronauts to the moon by 2024, NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the moon by 2028 through NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration plans.
By: Stephen Kuper
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