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NASA’s Mars helicopter is looking good

Published Mar 22nd, 2021 9:21PM EDT
mars helicopter
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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NASA’s newest Mars mission has been going great. The space agency just barely managed to launch the mission in 2020 before the launch window closed, but everything since has been gone just about as well as anyone at NASA could have imagined. The rover successfully landed on Mars, tested all of its sensitive, high-tech instruments, and is already rolling on the Red Planet. But the rover isn’t the only vehicle that recently arrived on Mars. The Mars Ingenuity Helicopter was also along for the ride, and NASA just shared the first image of it in its new home.

The helicopter rode to Mars on the belly of Perseverance. It cruised down to a soft landing still strapped to the rover’s underside and, now that the rover has gotten through all of its vital checks, NASA has sent a command to the rover to remove the thick shield that covered the helicopter during its long trip.

In a new photo sent back to Earth by Perseverance, we get to see the folded-up helicopter on Mars for the first time. The image was shot from the underside of the rover, and you can clearly see the debris shield resting below it, having been released by the rover after its handlers on Earth sent the command.

It’s a really awesome image that shows just how much work goes into planning and executing missions to the Red Planet. In a tweet from the official Perseverance rover account, we are treated to a description of exactly what we’re seeing here:

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.

So, while we can see the helicopter there, it’s definitely not ready for its time in the spotlight just yet. The mission team already has a plan in place for the helicopter, and it requires the rover to travel to the flight launch location before the tiny aerial vehicle can be let loose.

The helicopter is something of a proof of concept for NASA. It doesn’t have any science objectives and doesn’t carry a payload of sensors or anything like that. Its only mission will be to take flight on Mars, becoming the first manmade, powered aircraft to take to the skies on another planet. NASA wants to test the feasibility of using drones like the Mars helicopter for future missions. If Ingenuity proves its worth, Mars missions with aerial drones could provide a wealth of information and a larger exploration radius than any rover could ever dream of. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that it nails its landing.

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