In the midst of all the excitement about Perseverance’s arrival on Mars and the presentation of the spectacular video of its arrival, we had missed the announcement that the Ingenuity helicopter has also arrived on Mars in perfect condition.
Ingenuity has traveled from Earth to Mars attached to the underside of Perseverance. It will remain until mission control decides its time has come. That will be no sooner than 30 days from landing; and probably no later than 60. But for now we know that it is communicating with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) through Perseverance with no problems. And that its batteries, onboard electronics and heaters are working as they should.
For now it receives electricity to operate from Perseverance, but when it is released, it will be up to its solar panels to keep the batteries at the necessary charge level. Both to keep from freezing and to be able to make the flights.
If it manages to take off and stay in static flight during its first flight, it will have already achieved 90% of its objectives. If it survives that first flight, up to four more flights are scheduled over 30 days, each a little more ambitious than the last. And all this with commercial off-the-shelf hardware and open source software: Ingenuity runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 at 2.26 GHz, uses Linux as its operating system, and is programmed with F prime. There is more about it at How NASA Designed a Helicopter That Could Fly Autonomously on Mars; the paper describing it is at Mars Helicopter Technology Demonstrator.
The idea is to demonstrate the feasibility of sending and operating a heavier-than-air aircraft on another star. Not to forget that NASA wants to send the Dragonfly drone to Titan. If everything works out in the future a descendant of Ingenuity will be able to make longer flights and with the corresponding load of scientific instruments. For now we will have to be content with Perseverance’s views from high altitude, which is not bad either. Perseverance will also send images from Ingenuity. It will thus become the first planespotter on another planet.
Ingenuity is going to be spectacular. But it won’t be the first time we’ve flown an aircraft on another planet. That place goes to the hot air balloons that the Soviet missions VeGa 1 and VeGa 2 released into the atmosphere of Venus in 1985. But unfortunately we don’t have images of that.