Helicopters On Mars? From Rolling Rovers To Flying Drones
Updated: Jan 30, 2022
Since the 1960s, dozens of missions and spacecraft launchings have been carried out by NASA with the intention of exploring the Martian surfaces to discover if the red planet was once habitable, and perhaps if it is a candidate environment for the future of our human species.
A great amount of information that is known about the red planet, that we call Mars, due to the successful wheeled rovers that have been used to obtain such information, ranging from the planet’s geology all the way to its atmospheric characteristics.
However, with increasing ambition to further expand discoveries, these slow-moving rovers simply aren’t fast enough. So, what may be the solution to increase rover movement and maximize exploration? A fast-flying rover perhaps! And, believe it or not, NASA has already got that covered.
Meet the 'SOL' sisters: Perseverance and Ingenuity
Ingenuity is an autonomous technological experiment that was built by NASA to show the possibility of powered flight on a planet that is not our own, just like the very first Mars rover, Sojourner, which rolled on Mars’ soil in 1997.
This helicopter’s name was not originally given by NASA, but by a student who won the, “Name The Rover” contest in 2020. “Ingenuity is what allows people to accomplish amazing things, and it allows us to expand our horizons to the edges of the Universe,” wrote Vaneeza Rupani, winner of the contest.
The goal of this helicopter is to simply be a successful (experimental) project, which can help future flights such as the Dragonfly―a drone that is planned to launch on Saturn’s moon in the coming years.
Helicopter launches are actually quite difficult. The reason being, Mars' atmosphere is 99% less dense than Earth’s, making it quite thin, resulting in difficulty to lift any spacecraft off of its surface.
So, how exactly is Ingenuity going to be any different? Well, Ingenuity was built with a light anatomy, weighing only 4 pounds, with carbon-fiber blades that spin at 2,400 rpm, 6 times faster than the ones on Earth, making Ingenuity’s flight off of the Martian soils possible, which was tested on April 14th, 2021.
The helicopter has also shown success just by surviving the journey to Mars, and no, it did not fly itself there. The small drone was transported in a large six-wheeled rover known as perseverance, which made its landing on the planet in February 2021. Two months later, the small helicopter was sent free from Perseverance by finally being dropped onto Mars’ surface.
Evidence of success kept on rising as the helicopter, now independent from Perseverance, survived Mars’ below-freezing temperatures, of minus ninety degrees Celsius, thanks to the heating systems that were built in to keep Ingenutiy’s electronics properly functioning in below-freezing temperatures.
The two spacecraft will continue to work hand-in-hand as Ingenuity takes its first flight, capturing 30 pictures a second that is then analyzed to assess its location using a tracking-like software, all of which is then going to be sent back to Earth through Perseverance.
The innovation doesn’t just stop here! Make sure to follow along with Ingenuity’s journey through the red planet’s atmosphere, and the many more discoveries that this helicopter is going to make on NASA’s website, or you can follow NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Facebook and Instagram.