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Ingenuity helicopter activated for the first time in space

July 31, the Perseverance rover has left Florida soil aboard an Atlas V rocket heading for Mars. If all goes well, it should land on the ground of the Red Planet in a few months, in order to search for traces of life. To support it in its mission: Ingenuity, a mini helicopter specially designed for testing motorized flight over other planets. A step has just been taken for this small machine: it was powered up for the first time in space …

According to the official statement from NASA, on August 7, the six lithium-ion batteries from Ingenuity (“ingenuity” in French) were successfully activated and charged for the first time. The small device, 50 centimeters high and about 1.8 kilograms, is currently “at rest”, hidden in the belly of the Perseverance rover.

The first demonstration of a flight on Mars

The mission is expected to reach Martian soil in February 2021, at Jezero crater. While Perseverance will be busy scanning the sediments of the planet for traces of life, Ingenuity will emerge from the rover for its very first flight. Because this is the goal of his mission on Mars: a technological demonstration of the possibilities of powered flight on other planets. A series of test flights will be carried out over a period of 30 days, in the spring of 2021. Here is a small overview of the project in video (credits: NASA / JPL-Caltech):

While waiting to be able to fly into the sky of March, an important step has just been taken for the helicopter: a week after the launch of the mission, its batteries were correctly charged during the trip. ” This was an important step, as it was our first opportunity to activate Ingenuity andperform a routine test electronic sound Says Tim Canham, operations manager for Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The power source comes from the rover, in which Ingenuity is docked for the moment. The operation took no less than 8 hours, during which time the team scrupulously analyzed the performance of the device’s six lithium-ion batteries, charged to 35% this time. Why not a full charge? Because the experts determined that a low charge was preferable to preserve the “health” of the batteries during the whole trip to Mars.

The charge went as planned. The team is therefore now assured that the spacecraft withstood the launch and behaves normally in the extreme conditions of interplanetary space. She plans to repeat the operation approximately every two weeks in order to maintain a sufficient state of charge.

When the device has reached its destination, it will automatically detach from Perseverance and its batteries will be powered only by the solar panel it contains. If it manages to withstand the cold Martian nights during the first few days when experts will be checking, Ingenuity can begin its mission. Instructions given from Earth will be relayed by the rover.

A series of flights to test the limits

It is expected that its very first flight will take place just a few meters above the ground, for 20 to 30 seconds, before returning to Martian soil. If this first test is successful, other experimental flights will be carried out at greater altitude and of longer duration. The objective, if successful, is to prove that motorized flight is possible on Mars and thus, without fear of adding an aerial dimension to future exploration missions on this planet.

Ingenuity was designed to be able to fly for up to 90 seconds, over distances of 300 meters, at an altitude of 3 to 5 meters. The blades of its two rotors, which measure nearly 1.2 meters, turn at approximately 2,400 rpm. To face the freezing temperatures of March (at night, they can drop to -140 ° C!), The small helicopter has an internal heating system. It is also equipped with various sensors and two cameras (one in color, the other in black and white).

The power provided by its solar panel allows Ingenuity to fly in the sky of Mars for up to 90 seconds. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

On the same subject : The Curiosity rover investigates an unusually colored rock found on Mars

The project team is particularly confident today. However, the challenge is not easy to meet. Gravity on Mars is weaker than on Earth (it is equivalent to about a third of Earth’s gravity), but its atmosphere is extremely thin compared to our planet: it is 99% less dense than that of Earth. This is why it is more difficult to obtain sufficient lift. Hence the need to design a light machine, equipped with larger blades and much faster than those of a standard helicopter used on Earth.

Remember that the “Mars 2020 / Perseverance” mission is actually part of a vast space exploration program, which also includes several trips to the Moon. Our natural satellite will indeed be the first step in the conquest of Mars by Man.

Source : NASA

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