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NASA’s Mars Helicopter Ingenuity: What you need to know before its first flight



Ingenuity takes flight on Mars in this NASA animation.

NASA / JPL-Caltech

NASA’s rovers on wheels have revealed an incredible amount about Mars. From learn about the planet’s wet history and discover the chemistry of its soil, to the confusing presence of methane in its atmosphere, the rolling robots have been indispensable in painting a picture of one of Earth’s closest neighbors. They are remarkable, but they can not cover much ground – slow motion is essential to prevent them from tumbling over a cliff or colliding with a cliff.

But imagine if they could fly.

Tying a set of wings to a robot on another planet would open up a whole new way of exploring other worlds. “The ability to fly where you want, at high speed for a close-up without the risk of collision or fall injury, is an exciting ability,” said Alan Duffy, Professor of Astrophysics at Swinburne University in Australia.

That’s exactly what NASA has done with Ingenuity, a small, lightweight vessels scheduled to take flight on Mars 11th April. If it flies, it will be the first time humans have achieved powerful, controlled flight on another planet – a moment the Wright brothers’ moment in another part of the cosmos.

However, there are significant challenges in flying on Mars, and Ingenuity has to contend with a planet that particularly enjoys killing spacecraft. Should it succeed in getting off the ground, it will pave the way for future missions, deeper into the cosmos.

Here’s why Invention is so ingenious.

Pre-check

If you’re wondering how NASA got a helicopter to Mars and feel like you have not heard too much about it, it’s probably because NASA’s Perseverance rover stole the entire spotlight. Ingenuity is a “ride-along” mission and a technical demonstration. It is not on Mars to perform any science. Rather, it is built to show that motor flying is possible in another world.

Ingenuity was hidden away in the belly of perseverance during rovers’ long stay from Earth to Mars, which started in July. Rover landed on the planet back in February, and Ingenuity was safe from the harsh, cold surface of Mars until April 4, when Perseverance carefully deposited the helicopter down on Earth.

While aboard the Perseverance, Invention was protected and powered by the rovers suite of instruments. But after it was handed over and perseverance rolled away, ingenuity was cold and alone – literally. Mars temperatures drop well below freezing at night to around minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately, Ingenuity showed that it can handle the cold when it survived his first night separated from his rover pal.

However, the relationship to endurance is not over. When ingenuity takes its first flight, it will be perseverance that forwards these messages back to Earth.

On April 6, Ingenuity took its first photograph of Mars, an orange-and-brown snapshot of the low-resolution surface. It’s not much, but if you want to get technical, it’s a vehicle for the first time capable of flight has taken a picture of the surface of the red planet, so it’s pretty cool.

The cabin doors are now closed

There are plenty of challenges in achieving flight on Mars, but the biggest one is the air.

There is a strong difference in atmosphere between the red planet and Earth. The Martian atmosphere is incredibly thin compared to our own, so it’s far harder to reach the lift. Ingenuity is designed to deal with this problem. While we have already called it everything from a helicopter to an aviator, a helicopter to a rotor craft, the technology that most reminds me is a drone.

However, the blades are much larger than those of a similar vessel on Earth, and they rotate about 2,400 rpm – six times faster than on a ground-based vessel. At this speed and size, terrestrial tests have shown that ingenuity must be able to get off the earth on Mars without any problems.

Unlike a drone, no one controls the vehicle in real time. The Ingenuity team had to upload instructions to the vessel well in advance and then receive data back after making its flight. Ingenuity is designed to be very autonomous and stay healthy during the communication delay between the two planets.

Prepare to start

Before Perseverance landed in the Jezero Crater on February 18, the Ingenuity team searched for an “airfield” and surrounding “flight zone” – a flat, mostly empty area on Mars’ surface that would not endanger the safety of Ingenuity.

Luckily there was one basically next to the landing site. “We began to realize that we might have a really good aerodrome right in front of our noses,” said NASA’s Håvard Fjær Grip, chief pilot for Ingenuity. Grip says the team looked at “every rock and stone” before deciding on the home base for the helicopter.

Within 30 suns (approximately 31 Earth days), Ingenuity plans to take five flights, but the first is the most important. It will be a fairly simple flight.

The rotorcraft will take off, straight up, to a height of about three meters (about 10 feet) and hover in place for about 30 seconds. Then it takes a small turn before coming down and landing again. During the flight, Ingenuity’s eyes and brain work overtime, pre-programmed by the team to keep the craft safe.

It will snap 30 frames per second of the earth to understand where it is, and make the necessary changes in orbit – about 500 times per second, according to Grip. This autonomy ensures that ingenuity is not blown off course by a sudden Mars wind.

Future missions

As NASA engineers have repeated many times: Ingenuity is a “technology demonstration”, just like the very first Mars rover, the Sojourner, which rolled across the planet in 1997.

In many ways, ingenuity has already succeeded: It survived the journey to Mars, sat up on the planet, and survived its first night alone in the cold. Its first flight will be important, not only for Mars exploration, but for exploring our entire solar system.

“If Ingenuity demonstrates that we can successfully control aircraft on other planets, it will greatly expand the possibilities for exploration in the future,” said Jonti Horner, professor of astrophysics at the University of Southern Queensland.

Aircraft are a powerful tool for exploration. If robots can stay in the air, they will be able to quickly climb mountainous regions, investigate cracks in mountain slopes, fly over lakes or lake beds, and move quickly to avoid danger. With the right equipment, they can possibly snatch samples and also bring them back to a rolling robot. You can even imagine a Mars rover rotorcraft combo in the future, allowing space agencies to mirror their landing site more accurately and decide the best place to roll for the following day.

There are other missions – and worlds – that will also benefit from Ingenuity’s demo.

Dragonfly will explore Saturn’s moon, Titan.

NASA / JHU-APL

One such mission is NASA’s jeweler, which Horner calls Ingenuity’s “big sister,” that mission visits Titan, one of the most exciting moons in Saturn. The moon is rich in organic matter, contains a nitrogen-rich atmosphere like Earth and is home to massive methane lakes and storms. It may even contain signs of life, past or present.

“Titan is unlike any other place in the solar system, and Dragonfly is like no other mission,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s Assistant Administrator to the Science Mission’s Directorate. It’s a little more ambitious than ingenuity, where the spacecraft contains all the necessary instruments to search for signs of life and to study the Selk impact crater, which is suspected of having once held liquid water. Dragonfly is scheduled to launch in 2027 and reach Titan by 2034.

If Ingenuity comes off the ground, the dream of another worldly flight will come true – heralds the next era of planetary space exploration.


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