Mars Ingenuity helicopter
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter stands on the Red Planet’s surface near the Perseverance rover in this illustration. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Two San Diego companies have major roles in NASA’s latest Mars probe, a $2.4 billion nuclear-powered rover scheduled to land Thursday and later release a tiny helicopter.

The Perseverance rover and its Ingenuity helicopter are scheduled to land at 12:55 p.m. Pacific time after a harrowing 7-minute descent through the Martian atmosphere.

The landing site is Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide basin located in the planet’s northern hemisphere that scientists believe was once a body of water about the size of Lake Tahoe.

NASA won’t know for more than 11 minutes whether Perseverance landed safely because that’s how long it takes radio communications to reach Earth over the 127-million-mile distance from Mars.

The lander, which measures 10 feet by 9 feet and weighs 2,260 pounds, is equipped with 25 cameras, five of which — including the two primary ones — were made by Malin Space Science Systems in Sorrento Valley.

Malin’s Mastcam-Z cameras will enable stereo imaging over a broad range of fields of view to assist in navigating the rover and planning for science experiments.

Once the rover is safely operating on Mars, NASA will attempt to fly the $85 million, 4-pound helicopter, which is designed to take off in an atmosphere just 1% as dense as on Earth.

The helicopter is controlled by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor typically found in smartphones. It was chosen because of its combination of minimal size and weight coupled with advanced computing power.

Perseverance is the most sophisticated rover NASA has ever sent to Mars. Its mission is to examine rock and sediment samples for future return to Earth, search for signs of ancient microbial life, and pave the way for human exploration beyond the Moon.

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.