• The Mars Ingenuity Helicopter was powered up in space environment for the first time
  • Its batteries were charged to 35% to keep it in 'optimal' health
  • Once on Mars, Ingenuity will undergo a series of flight tests to demonstrate powered flight

The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was powered up for the first time in space.

On Aug. 7, one week after its journey to Mars began, NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was powered up and had its batteries partially charged. For eight hours, the NASA team checked the performance of Ingenuity's six lithium-ion batteries, which were charged up to 35%. NASA explained that having the batteries at a low charge state is "optimal" for the batteries' health during the seven-month trip.

This power-up marks the first time that Ingenuity was powered up and charged in a space environment.

"This charge activity shows we have survived launch and that so far we can handle the harsh environment of interplanetary space," Ingenuity Mars Helicopter project manager at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), MiMi Aung, said in a news release from NASA. "We have a lot more firsts to go before we can attempt the first experimental flight test on another planet, but right now we are all feeling very good about the future."

Operations lead for Mars Helicopter at JPL, Tim Canham, explains that the activity will be performed every two weeks to make sure that the craft will remain at an "acceptable state of charge." Once on Mars, its batteries will no longer need to be charged as it will get its power using its own solar panels.

Mars Ingenuity Helicopter
Image: Illustration of the Mars Ingenuity helicopter on the surface of Mars. On the left side of the image, the Perseverance rover is partially visible. NASA/JPL-Caltech

For now, Ingenuity is hitching a ride on the Perseverance rover, from where it also receives its power supply. Once on Mars, several flight tests will be performed over a 30-day period that will begin in the spring of 2021.

On its first flight, Ingenuity will first take off just a few feet from the ground, hover for about 20 to 30 seconds and then land again.

"That will be a major milestone: the very first powered flight in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars!" says a post on Mars Exploration Program page on NASA website. The atmospheric volume on Mars is less than 1% of the atmospheric volume of the Earth.

After the first test, the helicopter will slowly fly farther distances at greater altitudes. Once the testing is over, Perseverance can then proceed with its scientific mission of searching for signs of past microbial life.

As the first technology demonstration of powered flight on Mars, successful testing of Ingenuity will add a new, aerial dimension for future Mars explorations, taking Mars exploration another step toward the goal of human exploration on the Red Planet.