The planet Mars is Earth’s neighboring planet, and for this reason alone it exerts a certain attraction on researchers. Three space probes are currently approaching the planet and are expected to reach it in the course of February. The mission that is receiving the most attention is that of the U.S. space agency NASA. It has a lot of experience with Mars and at the same time has the best public relations.
While only fragments of the Chinese Mars mission “Tianwen-1” are known, quite a lot is known about the NASA mission “Mars 2020”: The rover “Perseverance” is to land on Mars on February 18, 2021. Before that, it must survive the so-called “seven minutes of terror,” in which the rover flies through the thin Martian atmosphere, independently activates parachutes and braking rockets to slow down, and autonomously searches for the best place to land.
Mars helicopter “Ingenuity” to demonstrate flight on the red planet
The Mars rover has an exciting experiment with it: the small helicopter “Ingenuity”. It is to be used for the first time at the earliest one month after landing on the red planet. It is a technology demonstration: “Ingenuity” will show that it is possible to fly in the thin atmosphere of Mars. “We are excited that we are now so close to demonstrating on Mars what “Ingenuity” can really do,” explains project manager MiMi Aung. The helicopter survived the violent shocks of the July 30, 2020, rocket launch well.
It is mounted on the side under the belly of the “Perseverance” rover and is occasionally supplied with power by it. A cover protects it from debris that will be stirred up when it lands on Mars. After landing, the rover and helicopter systems are checked, then the actual work on Mars begins.
NASA’s Mars mission: Rover “Perseverance” has “Ingenuity” helicopter with it
Once a good position for the helicopter has been found in the months following the landing on Mars, “Ingenuity” will carefully drop onto the Martian surface. It will then have just one task: to prove that powered, controlled flight of a rotorcraft is possible in the extremely thin Martian atmosphere. Up to five test flights are planned within 30 days on Mars, and NASA compares “Ingenuity” with a great pioneering achievement: the first controlled motorized flight by the Wright brothers.
But Mars holds some challenges for the mission of “Ingenuity”: The atmosphere of the red planet has only about one percent of the density of Earth’s atmosphere. The “Ingenuity” helicopter was designed accordingly: It is very light and has very long rotor blades that rotate much faster than would be necessary for a helicopter of this weight on Earth. Another challenge: It gets as cold as minus 90 degrees Celsius in the Jezero crater, the targeted landing site for the “Perseverance” rover. “Mars is not exactly welcoming us,” stresses Tim Canham, who leads the “Ingenuity” team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “One of the first things Ingenuity will have to do when it reaches Mars is survive its first night.”