The little helicopter aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover has gotten its first look at the Red Planet.
The 4-lb. (1.8 kilograms) chopper, a technology demonstration named Ingenuity, traveled to Mars attached to Perseverance’s belly. Over the weekend, Perseverance dropped the debris shield that protected Ingenuity during the rover’s epic Feb. 18 touchdown on the floor of Jezero Crater.
The move helps pave the way for Ingenuity’s test flights, which could take place as soon as the first week of April.
“Away goes the debris shield, and here’s our first look at the helicopter. It’s stowed sideways, folded up and locked in place, so there’s some reverse origami to do before I can set it down. First though, I’ll be off to the designated ‘helipad,’ a couple days’ drive from here,” NASA officials wrote Sunday (March 21) via the rover’s official Twitter account.
We’ll learn more about that helipad, and the rest of Ingenuity’s flight plan, during a NASA news conference tomorrow (March 23) at 1:30 p.m. EDT (1730 GMT). You can watch the event live here at Space.com, courtesy of NASA, or directly via the space agency.
No rotorcraft has ever flown on a world beyond Earth. NASA hopes Ingenuity changes that, and in a big way: Successful sorties by the bantam helicopter could open Mars to extensive aerial exploration in the future, NASA officials have said.
After Ingenuity’s few flights are finished, Perseverance will begin focusing in earnest on its main tasks: hunting for signs of ancient Mars life and collecting samples for future return to Earth. The 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero is a great place to do such work, mission team members have said. Observations by Mars orbiters show that the crater hosted a big, deep lake and a river delta billions of years ago.
Ingenuity is one of two technology demonstrations aboard Perseverance. The other, an instrument called MOXIE (“Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment”), is designed to generate oxygen from the thin, carbon dioxide-dominated Martian atmosphere. Scaled-up versions of MOXIE could one day help humanity set up shop on the Red Planet, NASA officials have said.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.