NASA’s Mars Helicopter has been given its name, as the cuboid aircraft prepares to hitch a ride to the red planet with the new Perseverance rover. Set to make the first powered flight on another planet, the helicopter will be used to gain new aerial insights into the Martian surface over the course of a Mars month.
It’s only one of Perseverance’s scientific payloads, but it’s arguably the most interesting. The helicopter will be strapped to the belly of the rover inside a protective shell, riding down as the six-wheeled mobile science lab makes its perilous descent to Mars.
After a safe period has passed, the helicopter will be deposited from underneath the rover, and then begin its pre-flight checklist. Solar panels on its upper surface will begin to charge its battery, and eventually its twin propellers will lift the four pound aircraft into the Martian sky. While it’ll gather data from that vantage point, its most important contribution will be proving that flight on Mars is a valuable addition to other types of exploration, and paving the way for longer-running helicopters in future.
All that was missing – well, apart from Perseverance’s launch and safe journey to Mars – was an official name, and that’s what’s been announced today. The helicopter will now be known as Ingenuity, after having been named by Vaneeza Rupani, a junior at Tuscaloosa County High School in Northport, Alabama.
Rupani initially came up with the name as a candidate for the rover itself, as part of NASA’s Name the Rover essay competition. “The ingenuity and brilliance of people working hard to overcome the challenges of interplanetary travel are what allow us all to experience the wonders of space exploration,” she wrote in her submission. “Ingenuity is what allows people to accomplish amazing things, and it allows us to expand our horizons to the edges of the universe.”
After Perseverance won out, though, NASA officials decided that the helicopter deserved a name of its own, too. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine selected Rupani’s entry, saying the name “encapsulates the values that our helicopter tech demo will showcase for everyone when it takes off next year as the first aircraft on another planet’s surface.”
Taking advantage of a bird’s-eye view is something NASA is no stranger to, though the space agency has been exploring smaller missions than the traditional satellites in recent years. Earlier this week, in fact, it announced plans to hunt for water ice in the Moon’s darkest craters with a compact CubeSat satellite dubbed Lunar Flashlight.
If all goes to plan, Perseverance and Ingenuity will take off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 ar Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in July. It’ll be a long trip to Mars, with a touchdown there expected on February 18, 2021.