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Ingenuity, a technological experiment, prepares to attempt the first, controlled flight on the Red Planet.
When NASA’s rover Perseverance lands on Mars on February 18, 2021, it will carry a small but powerful passenger: ingenuity, a Mars helicopter.
The helicopter, weighing about 1.8 pounds on Earth and a fuselage the size of a tissue box, started six years ago as an amazing option. Engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California knew it was theoretically possible to fly in the thin atmosphere of Mars, but no one was sure they could make a vehicle strong enough to fly, communicate, and survive autonomously with extreme weight limitations.
Then the team had to prove on Earth-related tests that it could fly in a Mars-like environment. Now that they have verified these targets, the team is preparing to test ingenuity in the actual Martian environment.
“Our Mars Helicopter team was doing things that had never been done before – which no one at first could be sure could be done,” said MiMi Aung, JPL’s ingenuity project manager. “Along the way we faced many challenges it could stop us in our tracks. We are thrilled to be so close now to show on Mars what ingenuity can really do.”
The ingenuity survived the intense vibrations of the launch on July 30, 2020, and underwent health checks while waiting to fall with perseverance through the Martian atmosphere. But the helicopter will not attempt its first flight for more than a month after landing: Rover and helicopter engineers need time to make sure both robots are ready.
Here are the key things to know about ingenuity as anticipation builds:
1. Ingenuity is an experimental flight test.
The Martian helicopter is known as a technological demonstration – a narrowly focused project that is the first attempt to test a new ability. Previous demonstrations of revolutionary technology include the first Mars rover, the Sojourner, and the Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats to fly Mars.
The helicopter does not carry scientific instruments and is not part of the scientific mission of Perseverance. The goal of ingenuity is engineering: to show the flight of a rotor in Mars’ extremely thin atmosphere, which has only about 1% of the density of our atmosphere on Earth.
2. Mars will not facilitate the ingenuity of attempting the first, controlled flight to another planet.
Because the atmosphere of Mars is so thin, the ingenuity is designed to be light, with rotor blades that are much larger and spin much faster than would be necessary for a helicopter of ingenuity mass on Earth.
The Red Planet also has temperatures colder than bones, and the nights are cold down to minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius) in Lake Crater, the landing site of rovers and helicopters. These temperatures will push the limitations of the original design of finished parts used in ingenuity. Tests on Earth at predicted temperatures show that parts of Ingenuity should work as intended, but the team is looking forward to an actual test on Mars.
“Mars doesn’t pull out exactly the welcome mat,” said Tim Canham, head of Ingenuity’s operations at JPL. “One of the first things ingenuity has to do when it comes to Mars is just to survive the first night.”
3. Ingenuity relies on the Mars 2020 persistence mission for safe passage to Mars and for operations on the surface of the Red Planet.
Ingenuity is nestled sideways under the belly of the Perseverance rover with a hood to protect it from debris that has lifted during landing. Both the rover and the helicopter are safely housed inside the shell-like spacecraft’s entry capsule during a 291 million-kilometer (471-million-kilometer) journey to Mars. The Mars 2020 spacecraft’s power system occasionally recharges Ingenuity’s batteries on the way there.
To reach the surface of Mars, ingenuity rides along with Perseverance as it lands. The rover’s entry, landing and landing system features a supersonic parachute, new “brains” for autonomous danger avoidance, and a celestial crane maneuver component that lowers the rover to Mars from the landing vehicle. Any space agency has tried to land only about 50% of those on Mars.
Once a suitable place to deploy the helicopter is found, the Mars rover helicopter delivery system will discard the landing cover, rotate the helicopter into a lowered leg configuration, and gently throw ingenuity to the surface for the first few months after landing. Throughout the commissioning and flight test campaign, the rover will help communicate with Earth. The rover team also plans to collect images of ingenuity.
4. Ingenuity is smart for a small robot.
Delays are an integral part of communication with spacecraft at interplanetary distances, meaning that Ingenuity’s flight controllers at JPL will not be able to operate a joystick helicopter. In fact, they will not be able to view engineering data or images from each flight until the flight occurs.
So ingenuity will make some of its own decisions based on the parameters set by its engineers on Earth. For example, a helicopter has some kind of programmable thermostat that will warm it up on Mars. During the flight, Ingenuity will analyze sensor data and terrain images to ensure it stays on the flight path designed by the project engineers.
5. The team of ingenuity counts success step by step.
Given the experimental nature of Ingenuity, the team has a long list of milestones that a helicopter must achieve before it can take off and land in the spring of 2021. The team will celebrate every milestone:
- Survive a Mars cruise and land on the Red Planet
- It is safely placed on the surface from the abdomen of Perseverance
- Warming autonomously through very cold Martian nights
- It is autonomously charged by a solar panel on top of its rotors
- Successful communication with and from the helicopter via a subsystem known as the Mars Helicopter Base Station on the rover
If the first experimental flight test on another planet succeeds, the ingenuity team will try to make more test flights.
Ingenuity will attempt up to five test flights within a 30-day Martian (31 Earth Days) demonstration window. His pioneering aspirations are similar to those of the Wright Brothers flyers, who achieved the first, controlled flight on Earth.
6. If ingenuity succeeds, future exploration of Mars could include an ambitious aerial dimension.
Ingenuity is intended to demonstrate the technologies and the first such operations needed to fly in the atmosphere of Mars. If they succeed, these technologies and experience with flying a helicopter to another planet could enable other advanced robotic flying vehicles that could be part of future robotic and human missions to Mars. Possible uses of a future helicopter on Mars include offering a unique view that is not provided by current orbits high above the head or rovers and landers; high resolution images and reconnaissance for robots or humans; and access to terrain that is difficult for rovers to access. A future helicopter could even help carry light but vital cargo from one place to another.
More about the project
JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, is running a demonstration of Ingenuity Mars Helicopter technology for NASA. JPL also manages the Mars 2020 Perseverance project for NASA.
This press release was prepared and distributed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.