Earlier this year, the Perseverance rover touched down on the dusty surface of Mars. It carried with it a new piece of technology: the Mars Helicopter, named Ingenuity. It rode to Mars earlier this year on the belly of Perseverance, before being set down and left alone to complete its task. Up until now, rovers have been the only moving vehicles sent to another planet, but Ingenuity was built to prove that powered flight on Mars was achievable. And on April 19th, it succeeded! The helicopter rose 10 feet in the air, hovered and completed a turn, then landed back down safely. It has since completed a second flight, with another scheduled for later today.
So how did Ingenuity come to be? Built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the technology demonstration was put together in just six years. The thin atmosphere of Mars means that a flying vehicle has to be built differently than one that flies on Earth. Ingenuity was built to be ultra-lightweight, but still generate enough lift to take off. It wouldn’t be as effective if it was placed on Earth!
The team were able to demonstrate the helicopter’s capabilities in advance in specialist testing environments, but they couldn’t know whether it would work for sure until it was tested on Mars itself. As Ingenuity is an experimental mission, the team had a list of milestones to work through before attempting a flight. These included successfully landing and deploying from the rover, autonomously keeping warm and charging batteries and communicating via the Mars Helicopter Base Station on the rover. Each of these was achieved, and Ingenuity flew!
Mars is an inhospitable environment, not just for humans but for the technology we send there as well. Jezero Crater, the landing site of the helicopter, can get as cold as minus 90 degrees Celsius at night. There are off the shelf parts used the build the rover for which this pushes the limits, so one of the first tests when it was deployed was to check that it could stay warm independently from Perseverance. It needed to be as lightweight as possible, so insulating it had to be kept to a minimum. This is because of the combination of thinner atmosphere and lower gravity that Mars has compared to Earth. It’s much easier for something to take off from the surface, but controlling the flight is the challenge.
The experiment of Ingenuity is planned for a 30-sol window. A sol is one day/night cycle on Mars. After the first successful flight, the helicopter completed a second flight on April 22nd. This time, it rose to 16 feet, and introduced some sideways movement. There will be up to five test flights total, each one building a little on the last. It doesn’t sound like much, but these small steps provide a wealth of data for scientists to analyse and run tests with back here on Earth.
If Ingenuity continues to hit more flight milestones, it will pave the way for greater steps towards utilising powered flight on Mars. This could include both unmanned projects and assisting any future astronauts that might live and work there. Rovers provide a range of movement that can be problematic. They need smooth enough surfaces so as not to get stuck. Flying vehicles could bypass obstacles and gather data from areas where rovers can’t go. They could also give data on a larger area, particularly about a region’s geology. Future applications could even include ferrying supplies from one place to another. For Ingenuity, the sky is truly the limit!