NASA's Perseverance rover is slowly getting ready to deploy the first helicopter on Mars even as it takes a look back at the litter it's dropping on the Red Planet. The rover, which was carefully sterilized on Earth to avoid contaminating Mars with microbes, dropped a protective debris shield onto the planet's surface on March 21. The shield is no longer needed as it was designed to protect Ingenuity during the seven minutes of terror landing in February.
An image from the WATSON (Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and engineering) camera on the rover's robotic arm shows the debris shield safely on the surface of Jezero Crater, between the rover's six wheels. It's the second thing Perseverance dropped in recent weeks, after an unneeded belly pan relating to its sampling system.
The Ingenuity helicopter is expected to attempt its first flight as soon as April 8, according to NASA, and it will be the first time an aircraft will attempt to fly through another world's atmosphere.
Ingenuity, if it can fly it will hail a potential new generation of Martian explorers that can scout ahead of rovers and even humans, in the decades to come, to make surface exploration easier.
NASA plans to start the Ingenuity flight campaign no earlier than April 8, assuming that Perseverance will be able to deploy the helicopter safely on the surface, a complicated six-sol or Martian day process. (A sol is roughly 24 hours, 40 minutes of Earth time.)
Perseverance and Ingenuity are also working mostly on their own, as radio communications must send pre-programmed instructions to Mars, which is several minutes' light speed away from us.
Perseverance teams are working on Mars time for a few months to make the most of the mission start, and hope to get Ingenuity off the ground within 30 sols or 31 Earth days of the drone's deployment.