Ingenuity, a helicopter for Mars exploration (credit: JPL/NASA)
The next Mars rover launches to Mars within weeks. Perseverance was the name selected for the next Mars robot in a contest with school kids led by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. Besides its own science objectives on the Red Planet, Perseverance carries an autonomous vehicle, a helicopter, named Ingenuity. If successfully deployed, the Mars-copter will fly over the Martian landscape as the first such airborne vehicle to do so. According to JPL,
Ingenuity will be deployed after Perseverance lands in February 2021. During early operations, the JPL teams will look for potential airfields of Martian real estate comparatively flat, obstruction-free, and viewable by the rover parked some distance away. When a suitable site is located, Perseverance will drop the graphite debris shield that protected the helicopter during landing. When the control teams are satisfied with the status, they'll command helicopter delivery process to begin
The deployment begins by releasing a mechanism that has kept the Mars-copter in place since being launched. A explosive device fires, a spring-loaded arm that holds the helicopter and begins rotating the helicopter out of its original position. A small electric motor will pull the arm until the helicopter is fully vertical and two of its landing legs are deployed. A second device fires, releasing the other two legs. David Buecher, one of the Perseverance engineers working on the helicopter deployment process commented on the mechanical 'ballet':
"the deployment must maintain electrical and data connections to the rover and helicopter until it's ready to drop onto the Martian surface. While I have worked on space-based deployments in the past, this one takes it to another level."
Ingenuity is the first test of a new aerial technology. Second-generation copters could add this dimension to future Mars missions as robotic scouts for human explorers, to carry small payloads, or investigate remote landscape features like craters, caves, and cliffs. However, before such uses can happen, a test vehicle must land safely and fly around Mars.
NASA has produced two short films to demonstrate how the deployment process is designed to work and what Ingenuity will do when flying.
Some very impressive ingenuity of NASA/JPL science and engineering on display already.