NASA’s Mars Helicopter Ingenuity: What You Need to Know Before the First Flight

Ingenuity takes flight on Mars in this NASA animation.

NASA / JPL-Caltech

NASA cyclists have revealed an incredible amount about Mars. From learn about the planet’s wet history and discovering the chemistry of its soil, to the enigmatic presence of methane in its atmosphere, the rolling robots have been indispensable in painting a picture of one of Earth’s closest neighbors. They are remarkable, but they cannot cover much ground – slow movement is critical to keep them from falling over a cliff or crashing into a rock.

But imagine if they could fly.

Tying a pair of wings to a robot on another planet would open a whole new way to explore other worlds. “The ability to fly wherever you want, at great speed, for a close-up view without risk of damage from a collision or fall, is an exciting opportunity,” said Alan Duffy, a professor of astrophysics at Swinburne University in Australia. .

That’s exactly what NASA has done with Ingenuity, a small, lightweight helicopters that will fly to Mars on April 11. If it flies, it will be the first time humans have achieved powered, controlled flight on another planet – a moment of the Wright brothers in another part of the cosmos.

However, there are significant challenges to flying on Mars, and Ingenuity is dealing with a planet that especially enjoys killing spacecraft. Should it manage to take off, it will pave the way for future missions deeper into the cosmos.

This is why Ingenuity is so ingenious.

Preflight checks

If you’re wondering how NASA brought a helicopter to Mars and feel like you haven’t heard much about it, it’s probably because NASA’s Perseverance rover stole all the limelight. Ingenuity is a ride-along mission and technical demonstration. It’s not on Mars to practice any science. Rather, it was built to show that powered flights are possible in another world.

Ingenuity was tucked into the belly of Perseverance during the rover’s long stay from Earth to Mars, which began in July. The robber landed on the planet in February, and Ingenuity was safe and sound from the hard, cold surface of Mars until April 4, then Perseverance carefully put the helicopter down to the ground.

On board Perseverance, Ingenuity was protected and powered by the rover’s instruments. But after it was turned off and Perseverance rolled away, Ingenuity was cold and alone – quite literally. Temperatures on Mars drop well below freezing at night, to about minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately, Ingenuity has shown that it can withstand the cold when it is survived his first night separated from his robber friend

However, the relationship with Perseverance has not ended. When Ingenuity takes its first flight, it will be persistence that sends those messages back to Earth

On April 6, Ingenuity took his first photo of Mars, a low-resolution orange-brown snapshot of the surfaceIt’s not much, but if you want to get technical this is the first time a vehicle has been used competent of the flight took a picture of the red planet’s surface, so that’s pretty cool.

The cabin doors are now closed

There are a lot of challenges to achieving flight on Mars, but the main one is the sky

There is a big difference in atmosphere between the red planet and the earth. Mars’ atmosphere is incredibly thin compared to ours, so getting to an elevator is much more difficult. Ingenuity is designed to deal with this problem. While we’ve already mentioned everything from a chopper to a kite, a chopper to a chopper, the technique that most reminds me of is a drone.

However, the blades are much larger than those of a similarly sized vessel on Earth, and they spin around 2400 rpm – six times faster than a vessel on Earth. At this speed and magnitude, tests on Earth have shown that Ingenuity should be able to get off the ground on Mars without any problems.

Unlike a drone, no one controls the vehicle in real time. The Ingenuity team had to upload instructions to the vessel well in advance and then receive the data back after making its flight. Ingenuity is designed to be highly autonomous and keep oneself healthy during the communication delay between the two planets.

Prepare for takeoff

Prior to Perseverance’s landing at Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, the Ingenuity team was looking for an “airport” and a surrounding “flight zone” – a flat, largely empty area on the surface of Mars that would not compromise Ingenuity’s safety. will endanger.

Fortunately, there was actually one next to the landing site. “We started to realize we might have a very large airport right in front of us,” said NASA’s Håvard Fjær Grip, Ingenuity’s lead pilot. Grip says the team looked at “every rock and pebble” before deciding on the home base for the helicopter.

In 30 sols (about 31 Earth days), Ingenuity plans to make five flights, but the first is the most important. It will be a fairly easy flight.

The rotorcraft will take off, straight up, to a height of about three meters (about 10 feet) and hang in place for about 30 seconds. Then it makes a small turn before it comes down and lands again. During the flight, Ingenuity’s eyes and brain work overtime, pre-programmed by the team to keep the craft safe.

It will take 30 frames per second of the ground to understand where it is and make the necessary track changes – about 500 times per second, according to Grip. This autonomy ensures that ingenuity is not blown off course by a sudden gust of wind from Mars.

Future missions

As NASA engineers have often repeated, Ingenuity is a “technology demonstration,” like the very first Mars rover, Sojourner, which rolled over the planet in 1997.

Ingenuity has already succeeded in many ways: it survived the journey to Mars, settled on the planet, and survived its first night alone in the cold. The maiden flight will be memorable not only for the exploration of Mars, but also for the exploration of our entire solar system.

“If Ingenuity proves that we can successfully fly aircraft on other planets, it will greatly expand the scope for exploration in the future,” said Jonti Horner, professor of astrophysics at the University of Southern Queensland.

Flight is a powerful reconnaissance tool. If robots can stay in the air, they will be able to quickly climb mountainous areas, examine cracks in slopes, fly over lakes or lake bottoms, and move quickly to avoid danger. With the right equipment, they may be able to take samples and also return them to a rolling robot. You can even imagine a Mars-rover-rotorcraft combo in the future, allowing space agencies to more accurately explore their landing location and decide the best place to drive to the next day.

There are also other missions – and worlds – that will also benefit from Ingenuity’s demo.

Dragonfly will explore Saturn’s moon, Titan.


One of those missions is NASA’s Dragonfly, which Horner calls Ingenuity’s “big sister,” that mission will visit Titan, one of Saturn’s most intriguing moonsThe moon is rich in organic matter, contains a nitrogen-rich atmosphere like Earth and is home to huge methane lakes and storms. It may even contain signs of life, past or present.

“Titan is unlike any other place in the solar system, and Dragonfly is like no other mission,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for the scientific missions directorate. It’s a bit more ambitious than Ingenuity, with the spacecraft having all the necessary instruments to search for signs of life and study the Selk impact crater, which is believed to have once held liquid water. Dragonfly is scheduled to launch in 2027 and reach Titan in 2034.

When Ingenuity takes off, the dream of alien flight will become a reality and usher in the next era of planetary space exploration.