One of the coolest things that NASA will put on the surface of Mars is hitching a ride along with the Perseverance rover. It is called the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. The goal of the Ingenuity helicopter is to prove that controlled flight can happen on the surface of another planet. One of the most challenging parts of the journey for the helicopter will be the very final stage where it’s deployed on the surface of the Red Planet.
The team of engineers says that the final 5 inches of the helicopter’s journey has been among the most challenging. That last 5 inches comprises the distance the helicopter will travel from where it stowed on the rover to the surface of Mars. The deployment will use the Mars Helicopter Delivery System. Ingenuity features a square fuselage that houses computers, cameras, batteries, and other components that’s about the size of a softball.
Outside the box, the helicopter has an antenna, solar panel, landing legs, and two rotors that measure four-feet across. The entire Ingenuity package is about 4 pounds. After considering every potential parking space for the Ingenuity helicopter, the team settled on the belly of the Perseverance rover. On any flat piece of Martian soil, the rover has 26 inches of ground clearance.
Ingenuity will be deployed about two months after the rover lands, currently scheduled for February 18, 2021. During early surface operations of the rover, controllers will be on the lookout for a potential airfield for the helicopter that measures 33′ x 33′ that is mostly flat, level, and obstruction-free. The area will also need to be viewable by the rover when it’s parked about a football field away.
Around the 60th day of the mission, Perseverance will drop the Mars Helicopter Delivery System’s graphite composite debris shield that protected the helicopter during landing before driving into the center of the chosen airfield. About six days after that, the Mars Helicopter Delivery System will deploy the helicopter. If Ingenuity proves that helicopters can operate on Mars, future missions could make use of second-generation aircraft for all sorts of mission duties.