How About a Helicopter Ride on Mars?
The first helicopter designed to fly on another planet began its journey to Mars.
NASA’s Mars Helicopter, named Ingenuity, is on its way to the Red Planet on the Rover called Mars 2020 Perseverance, which took off with an Atlas V rocket launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on July 30th.
While NASA and other space agencies around the world keep sending probes to the surface and orbit of the Red Planet, no one has ever attempted to fly by aircraft on another planet. Since the atmosphere of Mars is much thinner than that of the Earth, it means less air needed to generate buoyancy and more technical difficulties when designing a vehicle to stay in the air.
Here are 6 things you need to know about Ingenuity, which will make the first flight on another planet:
Ingenuity will make a test flight
Ingenuity is a project for technology demonstration, which will test a new capability for the first time, with limited scope. Previous ground breaking technology demonstrations include the Mars Pathfinder rover Sojourner, and the tiny cubic satellite called Mars Cube One (MarCO) that made a Mars flyby in 2018.
Ingenuity has four custom-made blades made of carbon fibre and arranged in two rotors rotating in opposite directions about 2,400 times per minute, many times faster than a standard passenger helicopter on Earth. It also has innovative solar cells, batteries, and other components. Ingenuity does not carry tools to be used for scientific purposes and is considered a separate experiment from the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover.
Ingenuity will be the first aircraft to attempt controlled flight on another planet
Ingenuity will make history’s first attempt at powered flight on another planet next spring (2021). Because the Martian atmosphere is 99% less dense than Earth’s, Ingenuity needs to have rotor blades that are much larger, much lighter, and much faster spinning than would be required for a helicopter of the same mass on Earth. At the Jezero Crater, Ingenuity’s planned landing point, temperatures drop to minus 90°C at night. Although many tests were carried out on Earth, the Martian environment will push the design limits of many parts of Ingenuity.
In addition, flight controllers will not be able to control the helicopter simply with a joystick. Communication delays are a natural part of working with spacecraft at interplanetary distances. Commands will have to be sent well in advance, and the engineering data returning from the spacecraft long after each flight will be evaluated way too late. Meanwhile, Ingenuity will have a lot of autonomy to make its own decisions about how to fly to a waypoint and how to keep itself warm.
Ingenuity is a fitting name for a robot that is the result of extreme creativity
High school student Vaneeza Rupani from Northport, Alabama, had initially proposed the name “Ingenuity” for the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, but NASA officials considered this name a terrific fit for the helicopter instead, given how much creative thinking the team had to put in to accomplish this project.
Ingenuity already demonstrated its engineering skills
With careful steps from 2014 to 2019, NASA engineers demonstrated that it is possible to build a light aircraft that can generate enough buoyancy in the thin atmosphere of Mars and survive in a Mars-like environment. They tested increasingly advanced models in special space simulators. In January 2019, the actual helicopter that will go to the Red Planet with Perseverance passed the final flight evaluations. Failure in any of these milestones could have grounded the experiment.
“Team Ingenuity” will achieve success step by step
Given the firsts Ingenuity is trying to accomplish, the team has a long list of milestones that the helicopter is required to achieve in order to take off and land in 2021’s spring. The team will celebrate every successful step.
The milestones are:
* Surviving the launch from Cape Canaveral, voyage to Mars, and the landing on Mars,
* Safe deployment from Perseverance to the surface,
* Keeping warm autonomously on extremely cold Martian nights,
* Self-charging with the solar panel.
After achieving all these, Ingenuity will make its first flight attempt. If the helicopter succeeds on this first flight, the Ingenuity team will attempt up to four more test flights within 30 Mars days (31 Earth days).
If Ingenuity succeeds, future Mars exploration may include an ambitious aerial dimension
Ingenuity aims to demonstrate and test the technologies necessary to fly in the Martian atmosphere. If successful, these technologies could pave the way for other advanced robotic flying vehicles that could be included in future robotics and human missions to Mars. It can offer a unique perspective that cannot be provided by existing vehicles in high orbits or by rovers and landers on the Martian surface. Vehicles like Ingenuity can provide high resolution imagery and exploration for robots or humans, and provide access to terrain that is difficult to reach for rovers.
- 1. https://www.space.com/nasa-mars-helicopter-ingenuity-launched.html
- 2. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/6-things-to-know-about-nasas-ingenuity-mars-helicopter/