As NASA is looking forward to landing its Perseverance probe on the Martian surface in some hours today (Feb. 18), the mission will also attempt to fly the first helicopter on the Red Planet.
Named “Ingenuity”, the helicopter is contained in the Perseverance rover. It is a very light flying machine weighing just 1.8 kilograms and stands as tall as 19 inches only. Ingenuity is mostly a flight experiment on Mars and has nothing to do with Perseverance’s mission – to search for signs of ancient life on the planet.
“The Wright Brothers showed that powered flight in Earth’s atmosphere was possible, using an experimental aircraft,” Håvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) said in a statement. “With Ingenuity, we’re trying to do the same for Mars.”
According to NASA, the tiny aircraft consists of four specially constructed carbon-fiber blades, arranged into two rotors that spin in opposite directions at around 2,400 rpm which is very much faster than a normal helicopter.
NASA’s Mars helicopter will try a series of 90-second flights. However, the Martian conditions will be challenging to overcome. Mars has a very thin atmosphere – about 99% less dense as compared to Earth’s. This will make the flight difficult. On top of that the landing site, Jazero Crater, is a very cold region where the temperature falls to minus 90 degrees Celsius. But Ingenuity’s team is positive about the flight as the tiny vehicle has been tested with such conditions.
The helicopter will work on auto mode mostly as the command signals are delayed considerably. The team will send commands in advance of flights, however, the helicopter is designed to make its own decision regarding flying and keeping itself warm.
“Ingenuity is intended to demonstrate technologies needed for flying in the Martian atmosphere. If successful, these technologies could enable other advanced robotic flying vehicles that might be included in future robotic and human missions to Mars,” NASA said.
“The Ingenuity team has done everything to test the helicopter on Earth, and we are looking forward to flying our experiment in the real environment at Mars,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager at JPL.
“We’ll be learning all along the way, and it will be the ultimate reward for our team to be able to add another dimension to the way we explore other worlds in the future.”
Ingenuity, which has an auto solar charging design, will make up to four more flight attempts if the first flight succeeds. It also aims to take some in-flight photographs.