• The Perseverance rover is the star of the Mars 2020 mission, but the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is one heck of an opening act. 
  • The helicopter rode to Mars while strapped to the belly of the large rover, and NASA has big plans for the tiny aircraft.
  • For the first time since landing, NASA has checked in with the helicopter and it sent back some promising news. 

NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is finally truly underway, with the successful landing of the Perseverance rover in the Jezero crater on Mars last week. It was a monumental achievement for everyone involved, and a great day for science fans all over the world. The rover itself is obviously the star of the show, and everyone is excited to see what it can do now that it’s at its destination, but it wasn’t the only Mars exploration vehicle to make the trip.

The Mars Ingenuity helicopter that rode to the Red Planet on the belly of Perseverance is now also safely on the surface. NASA spent much of the first few days after the rover’s landing just checking to see if everything was still in working order and capturing a few images along the way, but now we have confirmation that Ingenuity has also checked in with its handlers on Earth, and it has good news. The tiny chopper has been given a clean bill of health, and now the real fun can begin.

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Ingenuity is a very interesting project for NASA. The helicopter doesn’t have really anything in terms of a scientific payload. It’s not packed with sensors or instruments and it doesn’t have any science goals to achieve. All it has to do is fly.

The chopper is something of a proof of concept for NASA. The idea is to test the feasibility of a powered aircraft on Mars (and perhaps other worlds). Robotic rovers are relatively slow but quite powerful in terms of the hardware they can carry. An airborne drone would have to be much lighter, with less scientific equipment, but it could travel over far greater distances in a much shorter period of time. That would facilitate more rapid exploration at the expensive less science being conducted.

Ingenuity is the first step toward the possibility of an otherworldly drone explorer, and right now it’s looking like it’s ready for its first big tests.

“There are two big-ticket items we are looking for in the data: the state of charge of Ingenuity’s batteries as well as confirmation the base station is operating as designed, commanding heaters to turn off and on to keep the helicopter’s electronics within an expected range,” Tim Canham of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement. “Both appear to be working great. With this positive report, we will move forward with tomorrow’s charge of the helicopter’s batteries.”

If the aircraft can indeed take to the skies and survive a few short trips it would go a long way toward proving to NASA that such a vehicle is viable for Mars exploration. For now, we’ll just have to wait and keep our fingers crossed until it’s ready for its first trip.

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Mike Wehner has reported on technology and video games for the past decade, covering breaking news and trends in VR, wearables, smartphones, and future tech. Most recently, Mike served as Tech Editor at The Daily Dot, and has been featured in USA Today, Time.com, and countless other web and print outlets. His love of reporting is second only to his gaming addiction.