NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover is on its technique to the purple planet after a profitable launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, this afternoon. Tucked beneath its stomach is a really particular automobile: a Mars Helicopter.
Dubbed “Ingenuity,” the distinctive automobile is a small, autonomous plane that might be deployed on the Martian floor by the rover after it arrives at its vacation spot in February 2021.
Ingenuity’s mission shouldn’t be linked to the rover’s, which is able to search for indicators of historic microbial life on Mars and gather samples of rock and sediment for potential return to Earth in future missions.
Instead, the helicopter is solely an indication of know-how and the viability of managed, powered flight within the skinny environment of Mars.
“The Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity, is the first rotorcraft to fly at mars,” Perseverance engineer Nagin Cox from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California—the place the rover was constructed—advised Newsweek. “It will be the first time that we have flown a powered aircraft outside our atmosphere—making it a ‘Wright Brothers’ moment. Everything this helicopter does will be a first-time event.”
Ingenuity is presently hitching a journey on Perseverance’s stomach, lined by a defend to guard the automobile throughout the rover’s descent and touchdown. Once the rover has touched down within the 28-mile-wide Jezero Crater, the defend will drop and operators will slowly decrease the helicopter to the Martian floor.
After deployment on the floor, the rover will transfer away and engineers will carry out a sequence of checks earlier than Ingenuity conducts its very first flight—hovering within the air for about 20-30 seconds—and touchdown. If all goes to plan, this would be the very first powered flight within the extraordinarily skinny Martian environment, which is lower than one % as dense as Earth’s.
Following this primary profitable check, Ingenuity will then conduct a sequence of experimental flights over a 30-day interval, during which the helicopter will incrementally improve the distances it travels and the heights it reaches.
During these flights, the automobile will fly for as much as 90 seconds at a time, protecting distances of just about 980 toes, all whereas hovering not more than 15 toes above the Martian floor.
While these might not sound like spectacular figures, do not forget that the Wright Brothers’ pioneering flight in 1903—the primary self-propelled, heavier-than-air flight in historical past—lasted simply 12 seconds.
Furthermore, flying within the Martian environment is especially difficult, although its gravity is simply round a 3rd that of Earth’s. To operate in these circumstances, any Mars helicopter needs to be very gentle and have blades that spin very quick. As a end result, Ingenuity weighs lower than 4 kilos and its two, four-foot-long blades spin within the vary of two,300-2,900 revolutions per minute.
“This is approximately 10 times faster than the helicopters operating on Earth,” MiMi Aung, Mars Helicopter challenge supervisor at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, beforehand advised Newsweek.
To make sure that the helicopter is gentle sufficient to fly on Mars, NASA engineers miniaturized Ingenuity’s onboard computer systems, electronics and different components.
Aside from demonstrating the viability of powered flight on Mars, one other key goal for the Ingenuity mission is to reveal that the automobile can function autonomously, performing check flights—together with take-offs and landings—with out real-time human management from operators (not counting preliminary instructions to begin flying).
The helicopter makes use of solar energy to recharge its batteries and options inside heaters that preserve operational temperatures throughout the chilly Martian nights, which attain temperatures as little as minus 130 F in Jezero Crater.
If Ingenuity is profitable in demonstrating powered flight on Mars, the mission may pave the way in which for future helicopters to be deployed on the purple planet, and certainly different worlds. Such automobiles may perform help roles, performing as scouts for future rovers and, finally, astronauts.
Cox mentioned there have been a number of moments when NASA’s Curiosity rover, which is presently operational on the Martian floor, would have benefited from the presence of a helicopter scout.
“Curiosity has definitely encountered times in her journey where it would have been very helpful to ‘see around the corner’ and this helicopter experiment is the first step in that kind of ‘scouting’ ability,” Cox mentioned. “It adds an aerial dimension to space exploration.”
Furthermore, such helicopters may act as scientific devices themselves, venturing into difficult-to-access areas the place rovers can’t attain.