The very first powered flight to another planet will take place on April 8

This Tuesday, March 23, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) held a press conference to provide more information on the Ingenuity mission which, if all goes according to plan, will operate the very first powered flight very soon. on another planet.

This little helicopter is indeed one of the elements that makes the Mars 2020 mission so attractive and special. Weighing just under 2 kilograms and equipped with a solar panel, the aircraft managed to ignite its batteries while in space, and must now fly in the extremely thin atmosphere of the Red Planet. If it succeeds, then new possibilities will open up for scientists: flying devices could allow them to go to places unreachable from the ground and thus discover new areas on the stars they wish to explore.

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JPL researchers, who developed Ingenuity, have announced that they have found the flight zone for their machine. The latter had to meet several criteria: ” An area where the helicopter can take off safely, and where it can land safely after the flight ”, Explained Håvard Grip, the aircraft’s chief (remote) pilot. Luckily, they realized that such an area was near Perseverance, in which Ingenuity is still nestled.

The rover, which has already abandoned the shield that protected the aircraft, is currently traveling the distance separating it from this place located only 60 meters from its landing site. He will then drop the helicopter on the ground, a task which will take several days as it is complex. “ The most stressful day, at least for me, will be the last day we finally separate the helicopter and drop Ingenuity on the ground. ”Said Håvard Grip. When this step is completed, Perseverance will depart 100 meters away in order to avoid any collision with the aircraft, as well as to observe its demonstration. The rover must move quickly, as Ingenuity only has enough battery capacity to power a heating element overnight.

While Perseverance will return to its observation area, checks of Ingenuity’s sensors and on-board equipment will be carried out before its first flight, which should therefore take place around April 8, the weather on Mars being of course to be taken into account. . In this first and most important demonstration, the helicopter will fly fully autonomously up to 3 meters in height, stay in place for approximately 30 seconds, turn, and then descend to land. If all goes as planned, four more flights will take place over a period of one month.

During the test, Ingenuity will take 30 shots of the ground per second, while its 13-megapixel camera will immortalize the horizon. This use could also be relevant for the next missions: a drone could thus photograph the terrain in order to establish the areas to be avoided for a machine on the ground. Finally, Perseverance will also capture the flight of the helicopter. Even if its mission fails, the fact that such a small device survived a trip to Mars is, in itself, an achievement: ” You must survive a rocket launch by wearing a carbon fiber feather. This has never been done before ”Said Jeremy Morrey, engineer at Lockheed Martin.

As an anecdote, beneath Ingenuity’s solar panel is a tiny piece of fabric from the legendary Wright brothers’ plane, who made the very first powered and controlled flight on Earth in 1903.



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