When Mars’ latest NASA rover, Perseverance, launches this week, the robot will have a small passenger on board: a small box-shaped helicopter. If the helicopters succeed in hovering over the Martian terrain, this will be the first time a human car has ever flown in another world – and could open up a whole new way of exploring the solar system in the future.
The helicopter called Ingenuity is not the main focus of the truck. Perseverance’s most important goal is to look for signs of life on Mars and dig up samples of impurities that could one day return to Earth for study. However, the engineers managed to find space under the belly of the rover to store a small helicopter. At some point during the endurance journey, the rover will deploy Ingenuite to the surface of Mars, where it will spin its rotor and try to take off.
This interplanetary experiment hopes to provide a new perspective for exploring Mars beyond its current ̵1; limited – possibilities. Orbits on Mars cannot obtain high-resolution images that the spacecraft can get close to Earth. Landers can only retrieve information from a fixed location, while rovers can only move that far, with limited information about what lies ahead. However, the helicopter can act as a scout, survey other spaceships, or reach hard-to-reach areas.
This search capability could be very useful if humans ever hit the surface of Mars. “Really flying forward and getting high-resolution images to inform people and rovers about travel will really move the world,” said MiMi Aung, project manager for the Mars helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The ability to fly will bring a whole new dimension to the survey.”
There is still a big obstacle on Mars: the atmosphere. The air surrounding the planet is only 1% of the thickness of the Earth’s atmosphere. If so little air moves, it will be very difficult to reach the orbit on Mars. Low gravity on the surface of Mars helps; it is about 38 percent of the Earth’s gravity. But even with this help, the vehicle still can’t fly to Mars with the same technologies we use to fly on our planet.
In order for everything in this environment to get off the ground, it must be super light and the propellers must move incredibly fast. But they can’t go Too fast, or things start to get angry. “You can’t go any faster and faster, because what happens next is that your blades start to approach Mach,” says Bob Balaram, chief engineer for the Mars helicopter at JPL. The Verge“They’re starting to want supersonic to go and you don’t even want to let them go because you have much more turbulent effects.”
Due to these limitations, a team of technicians at NASA JPL decided to invent the first Martian helicopter. The endurance team determined the dimensions of the helicopter and found that a small helicopter with blades reaching a width of about 1.2 meters – or about 4 feet – could be placed in the vehicle. This ultimately dictated the weight of the helicopter, which could be, at only 1.8 kilograms or about 4 pounds. Creating such a small vehicle with electronics is just something that could happen today, says Aung. “Decades ago, light electronics technology – computers, sensors, cameras, gyroscopes – were not all available,” he says.
The final form of the helicopter looks like a long-legged spider with a complicated head. The main body of the Ingenuity is a box with four protruding limbs that keep the vehicle upright on the ground. At the top are mounted four carbon fiber blades and a solar panel for energy production. These blades are designed to rotate up to 2,400 revolutions per minute – or 40 times per second. The blades of a typical ground helicopter spin at a speed of approximately 450 to 500 revolutions per minute. However, Ingenuity knives should not exceed the speed of sound and reach less than Mach 0.7.
However, building wit was only half the battle. The team had to make sure that the helicopter could actually fly in another world. “In parallel with the invention of the helicopter, it is also: ‘How do you try it? “Aung says. “Because it’s never been before.”
Fortunately, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is equipped with huge test rooms that could be used for this work. A large chamber called the JPL Space Simulator can recreate the overall vacuum and manipulate all the extreme temperatures that a spacecraft can experience after leaving Earth. To test the wit, the engineering team turned the chamber into a Mars-like environment. “We basically took the chamber, which pumped it almost into a vacuum and filled it with carbon dioxide, so the room now contains a Mars-like atmospheric density,” says Aung.
Another challenging test remained: getting rid of the Earth’s severe gravity. To simulate the lower gravity of Mars, engineers attached a light harness to the Ingenuity prototypes each time they flew in the test chamber. The beam, called the gravitational extraction system, provided constant upward traction from the spacecraft, making it feel as if the vehicle was in 38% of Earth’s gravity.
This testing helped shape the final design of Ingenuity. During the first few flight tests, the team found that the blades on the test helicopters were constantly waving up and down. The tilting tendency also occurs in ground helicopters, because the blades are long and obliquely placed. However, a strong atmosphere dampens this effect. The thin Martian atmosphere, on the other hand, does not diminish this wave.
“It was a bit of a discovery for us when we did the first flights,” says Balaram, adding that knocking could interfere with the control of the helicopter. Solution? The engineers made the blades extra stiff, much stiffer than a normal helicopter similar in size to Earth.
The team has performed dozens of test flights in a variety of extreme conditions – including deep cold – to simulate Martian nights that can reach -130 degrees Fahrenheit or -90 degrees Celsius. Now, after all the hard work, it’s time for the Ingenuity to set out. To get to Mars, the helicopter will ride folded on the underside of endurance, covered by a protective shield. When the vehicle reaches Mars and finds the right place, the Ingenuity does a complicated gymnastics, unfolds into its final shape, and the legs point to the ground. It then falls to the surface when the endurance disappears and leaves it.
The team was given only 30 Martian days to operate on the Ingenuity, which is about 31 Earth days. The first flight will be simple: the helicopter will try to take off and climb to a height of about 10 feet or 3 meters, hovering there for about 30 seconds. It will be short, but it will determine if all the hard work of the engineers has paid off. “I think I’m going to feel this way: in the end, our baby, so to speak, is in an environment that has been developed for all these years,” says Aung.
He makes the ingenuity for up to four short flights, printing an envelope with each successive take-off. No flight will last longer than about 90 seconds. However, intuitiveness could reach a height of up to 15 feet or 5 meters and move horizontally to about 160 feet or 50 meters.
All these flights will have to be autonomous, due to the long delay in communication between Earth and Mars. The team sends a list of Ingenuity commands and performs all the steps itself. It is planned that the helicopter will capture images as it flies, and it is possible that perseverance may also capture some distant images of the Ingenuity floating in the air.
At the end of the day, Ingenuity is a demonstration of technology, so its flights should be short and direct. However, this may prove that flying machines can be useful for future missions to Mars. Engineers are already working on designs for larger helicopters weighing up to 44 pounds or 20 kilograms. Larger helicopters could carry a much more significant scientific payload and nicer cameras than Ingenuity currently has.
But before you can walk, you have to crawl first. And that’s what Ingenuity is all about. “Let’s hope we have what I would like to call our ‘Wright Brothers moment’,” says Balaram. “But it’s a controlled flight to another planet.”