When NASA’s Perseverance rover launches at the end of this month, an experiment named Ingenuity will be safely tucked beneath the rover for the seven-month journey. Ingenuity will be the first helicopter to attempt flight on another planet.
Although development of the rover began 10 years ago, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena began working on the design for a lightweight aircraft that could fly on Mars in 2014. Testing of a succession of models continued up through January 2019, when the design passed its final tests.
Ingenuity is an incredibly lightweight design, weighing only 4 pounds and featuring four carbon-fiber blades, solar cells and batteries. The blades are divided among two rotors spinning opposite of each other. Ingenuity’s rotors will spin much faster than the helicopters we have on Earth.
Mars has an incredibly thin atmosphere, so the design for Ingenuity had to be lightweight while including larger and faster rotors to get it up in the air.
“The Wright Brothers showed that powered flight in Earth’s atmosphere was possible, using an experimental aircraft,” said Håvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot at JPL, in a statement. “With Ingenuity, we’re trying to do the same for Mars.”
The helicopter isn’t carrying any science instruments because it is the experiment itself, or what NASA calls a technology demonstration. This test will allow them to attempt three separate flights of a helicopter on another planet for the first time.
Technology demonstrations also led to their rover designs and the CubeSats that accompanied the InSight mission on its journey to Mars in 2018.
Although Ingenuity has gone through testing on Earth that simulate Martian conditions, the designers won’t know until Ingenuity lands with Perseverance and is dropped on the Martian surface if it can withstand the cold temperatures, which can reach negative 130 degrees Fahrenheit at night.
And Ingenuity will be flying based on its own autonomy and commands that are sent in advance, rather than real-time instructions, due to the communication delay between Mars and Earth. Data from each flight will also take time to return to Earth.
The first flight and landing test is expected in spring of 2021 on Mars. But first, it has to endure the launch from Cape Canaveral at the end of this month, the journey through space to Mars and landing on Mars.
Then, it has to detach from the underside of the rover and use its autonomy to make the best decisions on how to keep itself warm at night and how to keep itself charged by using its solar panel.
And finally, Ingenuity will experience its first flight, well within the view of the Perseverance rover and its cameras that will hopefully be able to track and watch the flight.
“Perseverance should be able to image the helicopter while it’s flying from a safe standoff distance, about 50 to 100 meters out, and use its cameras to zoom in,” said Matt Wallace, Perseverance deputy project manager at JPL, during a recent press conference. “Whether the helicopter will see vehicle depends on its orientation and how high it goes.”
Based on that flight experience, the Ingenuity team can attempt as many as four other test flights within a 31-day window.
If Ingenuity’s technology demonstration is successful, it could pave the way for more advanced robotic aircraft to be used on future missions to Mars, both robotic and human, according to NASA.
While Martian orbiters allow for global vantage points and make communication possible with Earth, and rovers show detailed views of the ground, aircraft on the planet could contribute unique and helpful observations. This could aid robots and humans on Mars and even access areas where rovers can’t go.
“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, in a statement. “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.”
The helicopter’s name was submitted by high school student Vaneeza Rupani of Northport, Alabama, during a contest to name the aircraft and selected by NASA.
“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.”