When last I wrote, we were still anticipating the landing of the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover on Mars. Since then, as the whole world knows, Perseverance safely touched down in Jezero Crater where it will search for the evidence of past life on Mars. But before the rover begins exploring Jezero Crater in earnest, we will perform an important and historic technology demonstration with the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter.
Ingenuity — a 1.8-kilogram (4-pound) rotorcraft — has now been successfully lowered to the surface of Mars from the underbelly of Perseverance and is currently proceeding through a series of pre-flight activities. To say that our helicopter’s name — provided by Tuscaloosa County High School student Vaneeza Rupani last year through the “Name the Rover” contest — is apt is a major understatement. Ingenuity is the complete embodiment of cleverness, originality, and inventiveness. To be accommodated on Perseverance, the helicopter had to be small. To fly in Mars’ atmosphere (with a density just 1% of Earth’s), it had to be lightweight. To survive the incredibly cold nights on Mars, it needs enough power for its internal heaters. Yet the engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) rose to these challenges and we are poised to make the first controlled, powered flight on another planet with Ingenuity.
At the time of writing it was confirmed that Ingenuity passed a major milestone — by surviving its first night on Mars after its separation from Perseverance. Ingenuity is now sitting squarely within the 10 x 10 m “airfield” that has been chosen for its flat nature and lack of obstructions. In the coming days, several further checkouts and events will occur. For example, the restraints that have been holding the rotor blades together since before launch will be released, and subsequent low-speed and high-speed spin tests of the blades and motors will be undertaken. If all continues to go well, we are anticipating Ingenuity’s first flight no earlier than April 11. This will be a real “Wright brothers’ moment” — in fact, Ingenuity carries a very small amount of material from the Wrights’ famous Flyer wings as a tribute to the birth of aviation in 1903. With Ingenuity we are writing the next chapter in the history of flight.
As a technology demonstration, there are no scientific instruments on Ingenuity itself — its sole objective is to conduct flight tests in the thin atmosphere of Mars and collect important engineering data. The scientific instruments and communication capabilities of Perseverance, however, will be vital to the success of Ingenuity. Perseverance will be used to relay the flight instructions, and the precise time of the first flight will be determined based on several factors, including modeling of local wind patterns and measurements from the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) instrument. If all goes to plan, we expect Ingenuity to climb at about 1 meter per second, hover about 3 meters above the surface for up to 30 seconds, and then safely descend and touch back down on Mars. After the first flight, there should be the opportunity to conduct up to four more flights during the 30-sol “Month of Ingenuity.”
Of course, we will also be using Perseverance’s cameras to keep a close eye on the Ingenuity flights, and we expect to obtain plenty of high-definition images and videos. The rover will be positioned away from the helicopter at a location we have named the Van Zyl Overlook — for our much-missed colleague Jakob van Zyl who passed away unexpectedly last year. Jakob served in many crucial roles at JPL for more than 30 years, including as director for the Solar System Exploration Directorate. His leadership saw the success of many NASA missions and projects, including Ingenuity.
As Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division my foremost responsibility is to ensure the scientific integrity of our mission, but I am also thrilled that Ingenuity — a technology demonstration experiment — could be incorporated into the Mars 2020 mission. Experiments like this are vital if we are to continue to push the envelope of possibility in our robotic exploration of the solar system. When the Sojourner rover landed on Mars in 1997, it opened up a brand-new way to explore the surface of Mars — a method that we now take almost for granted. By making bold steps with our technology, we can expand our horizons and broaden the scope of science from future missions.
During the Month of Ingenuity another of our ongoing missions will also pass through a major event. Before starting its journey back to Earth in May, OSIRIS-REx made one final flyby of Bennu on April 7. This flyby provided the opportunity to obtain new images of the asteroid, and specifically, to characterize how the surface at the Nightingale sampling site was altered during October’s successful “touch and go” maneuver. The samples of Bennu will arrive back on Earth in September 2023, when — thanks to the ingenuity of the mission’s engineers and operators — scientists will get to work unraveling the secrets of our solar system contained within.
After more than a year of pandemic perseverance, I am so grateful to be honoring the Wright brothers, Jacob van Zyl (and his JPL colleagues), and Vaneeza Rupani — embodying the past, present, and future spirit of ingenuity — as part of the Mars 2020 mission. In the words of Vaneeza, “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.” I could not have summed up the importance of Ingenuity, and the lessons it will teach us, better.
— Lori S. Glaze, Director, NASA’s Planetary Science Division, April 2021