More than a century after the first powered flight on Earth, NASA intends to prove that it is possible to replicate the feat on another world.
Transported aboard the Mars 2020 spacecraft that arrives at the Red Planet tomorrow, the small Ingenuity helicopter faces several challenges — the biggest being the rarefied Martian atmosphere, which is just 1 percent the density of Earth’s.
It might be called a helicopter, but in appearance it is closer to the mini-drones that people have grown accustomed to seeing in the past few years. Weighing just 1.8kg, its blades are much larger and spin about five times faster — 2,400 revolutions per minute — than would be required to generate the same amount of lift back on Earth.
Photo: AFP / NASA / JPL-Caltech / Handout
However, it would receive some assistance from Mars, where the gravity is only one-third of that on Earth.
Ingenuity has four feet, a box-like body and four carbon-fiber blades arranged in two rotors spinning in opposite directions. It comes with two cameras, computers and navigation sensors.
It is also equipped with solar cells to recharge its batteries, with much of the energy used for staying warm on cold Martian nights, where temperatures fall to minus-90°C.
The helicopter is hitching a ride on the belly of the Perseverance rover, which is to drop it to the ground once it has landed, then drive away.
Up to five flights of gradual difficulty are planned, over a window of one month, within the first few months of the mission. Ingenuity is to fly at altitudes of 3m to 5m and travel as far as 50m from its starting area and back.
Each flight is to last up to one minute, 30 seconds — compared with the 12 seconds the Wright brothers achieved with the first powered, controlled flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903.
Like the Perseverance rover, Ingenuity is too far away from Earth to be operated using a joystick, and is therefore designed to fly autonomously. Its onboard computers are designed to work with its sensors and cameras to keep it on a path programmed by its engineers.
However, the outcome of these flights would only be learned after they take place.
NASA describes Ingenuity’s mission as a “technology demonstration”: a project that seeks to test a new capability together with the astrobiology mission of the Perseverance.
However, if it is successful it “basically opens up a whole new dimension of exploring Mars,” said Bob Balaram, Ingenuity’s chief engineer.
Future models could offer better vantage points not seen by current orbiters or by slow-moving rovers on the ground, allowing the helicopters to scope out terrain for land-based robots or humans.
They could even help carry light payloads from one site to another — such as the rock and soil samples the Perseverance would be collecting in the next phase of the Mars 2020 mission.
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