Our space

When NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter attempts its first test flight on the Red Planet, the agency's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will be close by, as seen in this artist's concept. Ingenuity will be the first aircraft to attempt controlled flight on another planet. When it attempts its test flights on Mars in Spring 2021, Ingenuity will remain within a 0.6-mile (1-kilometer) radius of Perseverance so it can communicate wirelessly with the rover. Perseverance then communicates with relay orbiters around Mars that send the signal back to Earth.

Did you know that Mars is the second-most studied planet in our solar system?

We have orbiters, landers and rovers on Mars, and several other spacefaring organizations have missions there (or are about to send them). So when another rover is about to hit the outer space road to the red planet, isn’t it all just a big repeat?

The truth couldn’t be further from that. This next shipment to Mars includes two passengers — a rover and a helicopter. It’s been a while since two separate entities have traveled to the surface of Mars together — not since the Pathfinder/ Sojourner mission way back in 1997. There was a stationary platform, a lander, if you will, named the Carl Sagan Memorial Station, that opened up like flower petals, making a ramp for the little Sojourner rover to drive off and explore Mars. Both parts outlived their projected lifespan many times over, becoming huge media darlings in the process and clearing the way for other wildly successful robotic explorers.

Enter our new dynamic duo — the Perseverance Rover and the Ingenuity helicopter. Like the rover back in 1997, Ingenuity is what they call a “technology demonstration” — a small scale experiment to prove that something can be done successfully, in this case to achieve controlled powered flight on another planet.

Ingenuity will make the trip safely attached to the rover’s belly. After seven minutes of sheer terror, when the two will enter the Martian atmosphere, slow down dramatically and be lowered gently to the surface by another sky crane just like Curiosity, our last Mars rover, the two travel buddies will do a thorough checkout of their systems. Then the helicopter will detach from the rover and 

plop down a few inches to the Martian ground. Perseverance will drive a safe distance away, and then all attention will be on the little flyer. All it really needs to do is fly upwards a few feet and then land again safely. It will pass on its information to the rover which will send it on to its eagerly waiting support staff back on Earth.

Of course the very same people won’t leave it at that and we can probably look forward to all sorts of cool maneuvers and – for the first time – aerial photography from Mars, because the solar-powered Ingenuity carries a camera as well! At first glance it doesn’t even look much like a helicopter — a little cube with two propellers on top, like a beanie cap. At first there was some doubt it would be able to fly at all since Mars’ atmosphere is ridiculously thin. But of course the engineers are smart cookies, so they tested it all out in a vacuum chamber, with just as much air as it would have on Mars, and the helicopter flew without a problem.

But before all this excitement happens we have to get there first! There are only a couple of weeks left in which we can launch to Mars; if we miss that window we have to wait another two years for the next attempt, before our planets are in the proper lineup again. There have already been several delays, due to niggling issues with the rocket. COVID-19 has really thrown a wrench into space exploration as well — especially those missions that have set deadlines. If your team gets sick nothing gets done, and everything moves more slowly than you’d like. But ultimately, while Perseverance and Ingenuity couldn’t care less about squishy-biology viruses the human factor is very much affected (so let this be your Public Service Announcement about wearing a mask, washing your hands for 20 seconds and keeping at least 6 feet apart from the next human being!).

The launch is currently set for July 30 from Cape Canaveral on the Florida Space Coast. Hopefully things will keep moving along smoothly for hereon out and the giant rocket works well and gets our intrepid duo on its journey to Mars on time. As long as they launch during the prescribed time frame the spacecraft will arrive at Mars on February 18, 2021 and land in Jezero Crater, which shows every sign of ancient water flows – rivers and deltas galore, and then Ingenuity will fly and Perseverance will start poking around and look for evidence of past life and even gather some samples, which it will stash along the way for a future mission to retrieve and carry back to Earth.

As with the Crew Dragon launch there will be no on-site festivities at Kennedy Space Center, due to the social distancing requirements, but NASA encourages everyone to watch online. You can participate in the countdown as well! Go check out https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/participate/countdown-to-mars/  and make your own countdown video and post it online with the hashtag #CountdownToMars for a chance to have your countdown featured on launch day, so grab your in-bubble friends, your kids and your pets! Here we go: “And... liftoff of the Atlas Five with the Perseverance rover, the Ingenuity helicopter, and all the best wishes from the OUR SPACE readers in Milledgeville, Georgia, where the dirt is just as red as on Mars!”

Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at our_space2@yahoo.com.   

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