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NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter passes first test in space

A week into its seven-month journey to Mars and already several million miles from Earth, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has been successfully powered up for the first time during its epic trip with the Perseverance rover.

The procedure, which lasted eight hours, saw the charge level of the helicopter’s six lithium-ion batteries brought up to 35%, with a low charge state considered optimal for battery health during the cruise to Mars.

Tim Canham, the operations lead for Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, described the operation as a significant event for the helicopter, which is set to become the first aircraft to fly on another planet soon after it reaches Mars in February 2021.

“This was a big milestone, as it was our first opportunity to turn on Ingenuity and give its electronics a ‘test drive’ since we launched on July 30,” Canham said, adding that the team plans to perform the same activity every couple of weeks to maintain an acceptable state of charge.

While the 4-pound (2-kilogram) helicopter currently receives its charge via the rover’s power supply, Ingenuity will be charged solely by its own solar panel after it takes its maiden flight.

During its flights over the Martian surface, Ingenuity will search for potentially interesting research sites while also collecting data for mapping routes for future Mars rovers. The camera-equipped helicopter will get airborne using four rotors around a meter in length, and an internal heater will help it deal with the planet’s bitterly cold nights.

Perseverance, on the other hand, is an altogether different beast. Weighing 2,260 pounds (1,025 kg), the six-wheel rover is bursting with advanced scientific instruments. NASA describes the contraption, which is about the size of a small car, as “the largest, heaviest, and most sophisticated vehicle” that it has ever sent to Mars, so there’s much excitement about what it might achieve. Its main mission aims are to search for signs of past microbial life, characterize the planet’s climate and geology, collect samples for future return to Earth, and pave the way for human exploration of the planet.

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