At 7 a.m. EDT today, NASA will launch the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The rover will have a companion attached on its belly, helicopter Ingenuity--the first aircraft to fly on another planet.
Perseverance and Ingenuity are expected to arrive on Mars by February 18, 2021. Harvard Grip, Ingenuity's chief pilot, said, "The Wright Brothers showed that powered flight in Earth's atmosphere was possible, using an experimental aircraft. With Ingenuity, we're trying to do the same for Mars."
The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter weighs only about 4 pounds with carbon-fiber blades and two rotors designed for the harsh environment on the Red Planet. It also runs on solar cells and batteries. In a report, the small helicopter was likened to the size of a Chihuahua.
Flying on Mars
Mars has a thin atmosphere that is 99 percent less dense than Earth's, which is why Ingenuity was designed to be lightweight. Since live communications between Earth and Mars is impossible because of the distance, Ingenuity will have a set of commands before the launch and will be making its own decisions on flying around the Red Planet.
Ingenuity was the name initially proposed for the Mars 2020 rover by highschooler Vaneeza Rupani before it was later changed to Perseverance. NASA was inspired by the submission and gave the name to the helicopter that will be attached to the rover instead.
Rupani wrote upon submission that those 'working hard to overcome the challenges of interplanetary travel' are the result of ingenuity and brilliance. These two characteristics open up the endless possibilities of space exploration. "Ingenuity is what allows people to accomplish amazing things," she wrote.
Perseverance and Ingenuity will land on Jezero Crater, where temperatures drop to -130 degrees Fahrenheit at night. Engineers built the helicopter to keep itself warm and be self-charging.
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A Wright Brothers Moment
NASA hopes that Ingenuity will be able to explore places that Perseverance and previous rovers can't go to. For the first time, scientists can get an aerial view of Mars from a robot on the planet with Ingenuity's two cameras.
If Ingenuity successfully accomplishes its four test flights, it will set a milestone for the future robotic missions to Mars. The team has tirelessly tested Ingenuity on Earth with numerous possible conditions on the Red plant. "We are looking forward to flying our experiment in the real environment at Mars," said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity's project manager. "We'll be learning all along the way, and it will be the ultimate reward for our team to be able to add another dimension to the way we explore other worlds in the future."
Carlos Malpica, an aerospace engineer at NASA's Ames Research Center shared how the team had dealt with so much uncertainty since the beginning of the project as they faced significant technical challenges. As they got closer to completing Ingenuity and with the launch just hours away, he said, "this feels like one of those Wright Brothers moments in aviation history."
NASA will have online broadcasts of the launch via NASA TV on Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, and other sites.