Space

NASA's Ingenuity helicopter readies for first flight on Mars

NASA's Ingenuity helicopter re...
Artist's rending of Ingenuity on Mars
Artist's rending of Ingenuity on Mars
View 4 Images
Artist's rending of Ingenuity on Mars
1/4
Artist's rending of Ingenuity on Mars
Ingenuity made visible after the jettisoning of its debris shield
2/4
Ingenuity made visible after the jettisoning of its debris shield
The Ingenuity airfield as seen from orbit
3/4
The Ingenuity airfield as seen from orbit
The airfield as seen from Perseverance
4/4
The airfield as seen from Perseverance
View gallery - 4 images

NASA says it plans for its Ingenuity Mars helicopter to make its first flight on the Red Planet on April 8 or later, depending on weather conditions and preflight tests. If successful, it will be will the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.

Though it may look like the sort of little drone rotorcraft any aerospace engineering student might put together as part of a lab assignment, the Ingenuity helicopter represents a technological achievement on par with the first rover to successfully deploy on Mars.

Since it takes an average of 12 and a half minutes for a radio signal to travel from Earth to Mars, Ingenuity has to be able to fly completely independent of outside control. If that wasn't enough, Mars has only one-third the gravity of Earth and the atmosphere is only one percent as dense. The temperatures also drop to as low as -130 °F (-90 °C) at night, which can freeze electronics.

The Ingenuity airfield as seen from orbit
The Ingenuity airfield as seen from orbit

This means that the solar-powered craft has to generate enough power to keep it warm at night, which isn't easy because Mars only gets half the sunlight of Earth, and fly under conditions that no other aircraft has encountered. Though Ingenuity has been thoroughly tested on Earth in Mars-like chambers, it has still never flown in a real-world field environment. This is particularly frustrating for engineers because a small flaw that could easily be corrected in a minute with a screwdriver or a pen knife will be impossible to carry out on Mars.

The 4-lb (1.8-kg) robotic aircraft is currently strapped to the underside of the Perseverance rover as it rolls toward the site designated as the "airfield." So far, NASA has taken the first step toward flight by jettisoning the graphite composite debris shield that protected Ingenuity during landing. Once Perseverance reaches the middle of the 33-by-33-ft (10-by-10-m) airfield and it's been determined that the area is suitable for the test flights, mission control will begin the intricate process of deploying the helicopter and making the necessary preflight checks over the course of six Martian days, or sols.

These steps will include using a bolt-breaking device on the first sol to unlock Ingenuity from the SUV-sized rover, and then freeing a robotic arm on the next day so it can rotate Ingenuity out of its horizontal position as it extends two of its four landing legs. On the third sol, a small electric motor will complete rotation of the craft. This will be followed on the fourth sol by deploying the second pair of landing legs.

Ingenuity made visible after the jettisoning of its debris shield
Ingenuity made visible after the jettisoning of its debris shield

At this point, on sol five, Ingenuity will be suspended 5 in (13 cm) above the ground as it continues to be charged by Perserance's nuclear power source. Systems tests will continue into sol six and, if all is confirmed as operational, the helicopter will be set down and the rover will roll 16 ft (5 m) away so the helicopter's solar panels are exposed to the sun.

At this point, a 30-sol (31-day) onboard mission clock will start. During this time, mission control will continue tests, which will include a non-flight power up of the rotors to 2,537 rpm. The helicopter will then carry out its test flights on its own after receiving final instructions from Earth as it stores telemetry data for later relay to Earth through Perseverance. Once airborne for the first time, it will climb at 3 ft (1 m) per second and hover at 10 ft (3 m) for up to 30 seconds before landing.

"When NASA’s Sojourner rover landed on Mars in 1997, it proved that roving the Red Planet was possible and completely redefined our approach to how we explore Mars," says Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters. "Similarly, we want to learn about the potential Ingenuity has for the future of science research. Aptly named, Ingenuity is a technology demonstration that aims to be the first powered flight on another world and, if successful, could further expand our horizons and broaden the scope of what is possible with Mars exploration."

Source: NASA

View gallery - 4 images
4 comments
4 comments
ChairmanLMAO
So now there's water on Mars AND air on Mars. Soon there will be food on Mars! Elon! Wait, save me a seat!!
Worzel
One of the things I've never seen mentioned on any Mars articles, discussing potential colonisation, is the matter of Earth natural electromagnetic frequency. The cells of all living creatures use this frequency as a clock to operate from.
When a group of people were confined in a Faraday cage, as a test to see the results, their biological systems started to go haywire after two weeks without this clock to time their functions, causing the group to get sick, and the experiment to be terminated.
People in the ISS are still affected by this frequency, so no problems. However anyone heading for mars will lose this effect.
Some method of replacing it will have to be found.
Air on Mars? Yes, very loosely, but about 90+% CO2! So holding ones breath, indefinitely will be the rule.
IanL
Worzel: Thanks for the interesting info on the topic of Electromagnetic Frequency effects.

It also raises the question as to whether NASA and the other companies have considered this for their proposed Manned missions to Mars. Since the travle time will be months such effects also need to be catered for on the Transportation platform.
piperTom
" If successful, it will be will the first powered, controlled flight on another planet." What about the sky-crane that lowered Ingenuity to the surface?