The first helicopter attempting to fly on another planet is a marvel of engineering. Get up to speed with these key facts about its plans.
When NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover launches
from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida later this summer, an
innovative experiment will ride along: the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter.
Ingenuity may weigh only about 4 pounds (1.8
kilograms), but it has some outsize ambitions.
Brothers showed that powered flight in Earth’s atmosphere was possible, using
an experimental aircraft,” said Håvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot at
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “With Ingenuity,
we’re trying to do the same for Mars.”
Here are six things you
should know about the first helicopter going to another planet:
1. Ingenuity is a flight
Ingenuity is what is
known as a technology demonstration – a project that seeks to test a new
capability for the first time, with limited scope. Previous groundbreaking
technology demonstrations include the Mars Pathfinder rover Sojourner and the
tiny Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats that
flew by Mars in 2018.
Ingenuity features four
specially made carbon-fiber blades, arranged into two rotors that spin in
opposite directions at around 2,400 rpm – many times faster than a passenger helicopter
on Earth. It also has innovative solar cells, batteries, and other components. Ingenuity
doesn’t carry science instruments and is a separate experiment from the Mars
2020 Perseverance rover.
2. Ingenuity will be the
first aircraft to attempt controlled flight on another planet.
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter will make history’s first attempt at powered flight on another planet next spring. It is riding with the agency’s next mission to Mars (the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover) as it launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station later this summer. Perseverance, with Ingenuity attached to its belly, will land on Mars February 18, 2021.
What makes it hard for a helicopter to fly on
Mars? For one thing, Mars’ thin atmosphere makes it difficult to achieve enough
lift. Because the Mars atmosphere is 99% less dense than Earth’s, Ingenuity has
to be light, with rotor blades that are much larger and spin much faster than
what would be required for a helicopter of Ingenuity’s mass on Earth.
It can also be bone-chillingly cold
Crater, where Perseverance will land with Ingenuity
attached to its belly in February 2021. Nights there dip down to minus 130 degrees
Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius). While Ingenuity’s team on Earth has
tested the helicopter at Martian temperatures and believes it should work on
Mars as intended, the cold will push the design limits of many of Ingenuity’s parts.
In addition, flight controllers at JPL won’t be
able to control the helicopter with a joystick. Communication delays are an
inherent part of working with spacecraft across interplanetary distances. Commands
will need to be sent well in advance, with engineering data coming back from
the spacecraft long after each flight takes place. In the meantime, Ingenuity
will have a lot of autonomy to make its own decisions about how to fly to a
waypoint and keep itself warm.
3. Ingenuity is a fitting name for a robot that is
the result of extreme creativity.
High school student Vaneeza Rupani of Northport,
Alabama, originally submitted the name Ingenuity for the Mars 2020 rover, before
it was named
Perseverance, but NASA officials recognized
the submission as a terrific name for
the helicopter, given how much creative thinking the team employed to get the
mission off the ground.
“The ingenuity and brilliance of people
working hard to overcome the challenges of interplanetary
travel are what allow us all to experience the wonders of space
exploration,” Rupani wrote. “Ingenuity is what allows people to
accomplish amazing things.”
In February 2021, NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover and NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter (shown in an artist’s concept) will be the agency’s two newest explorers on Mars. Both were named by students as part of an essay contest. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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4. Ingenuity has already demonstrated feats of engineering.
In careful steps from 2014 to
2019, engineers at JPL demonstrated that it was possible to build an aircraft that
was lightweight, able to generate enough lift in Mars’ thin atmosphere, and capable
of surviving in a Mars-like environment. They tested progressively more
advanced models in special space simulators at JPL. In January 2019, the actual
helicopter that is riding with Perseverance to the Red Planet passed its final
flight evaluation. Failing any one of these milestones would’ve grounded the experiment.
5. The Ingenuity team will count success one
step at a time.
Given the firsts Ingenuity is trying to
accomplish, the team has a long list
of milestones they’ll need to pass before the helicopter can
take off and land in the spring of 2021. The team will celebrate each time they
meet one. The milestones include:
- Surviving the launch from Cape
Canaveral, the cruise to Mars, and landing on the Red Planet
- Safely deploying to the surface
from Perseverance’s belly
- Autonomously keeping warm
through the intensely cold Martian nights
- Autonomously charging itself
with its solar panel
And then Ingenuity will make its first flight
attempt. If the helicopter succeeds in that first flight, the Ingenuity team
will attempt up to four other test flights within a 30-Martian-day (31-Earth-day)
6. If Ingenuity succeeds, future Mars exploration could
include an ambitious aerial dimension.
When NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter attempts its first test flight on the Red Planet, the agency’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will be close by, as seen in this artist’s concept. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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Ingenuity is intended to demonstrate technologies needed for
flying in the Martian atmosphere. If successful, these technologies
could enable other advanced robotic flying
vehicles that might be included in future robotic and human missions to Mars. They
could offer a unique viewpoint not provided by current orbiters high overhead
or by rovers and landers on the ground, provide high-definition images and
reconnaissance for robots or humans, and enable access to terrain that is
difficult for rovers to reach.
“The Ingenuity team has done everything to
test the helicopter on Earth, and we are looking forward to flying our
experiment in the real environment at Mars,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s
project manager at JPL. “We’ll be learning all along the way, and it will be
the ultimate reward for our team to be able to add another dimension to the way
we explore other worlds in the future.”
For more information about Ingenuity, check out
the press kit for the Perseverance launch:
More information is also available on Ingenuity’s
News Media Contact
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Grey Hautaluoma / Alana Johnson
NASA Headquarters, Washington
202-358-0668 / 202-358-1501
email@example.com / firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory