The wheeled rovers of NASA have disclosed a tremendous amount about Mars. The agency’s rolling robots haven’t been much success in getting a good view of one of Earth’s nearest neighbors, from learning about the planet’s wet past to the composition of its soil to the perplexing nature of methane in its atmosphere. They can’t cover much ground and slow movement is essential to avoid tumbling over a cliff or colliding with a rock.
But imagine if they could fly.
Strapping a pair of wings to a robot on another planet will open up a whole new universe of possibilities for exploration.
That’s exactly what NASA did with Ingenuity, a small, lightweight rotorcraft that was supposed to fly on Mars. It will be the first time humans have achieved powered, controlled flight on another planet — a cosmic Wright Brothers moment.
However, flying on Mars poses considerable difficulties, and Ingenuity must deal with a world that delights in destroying spacecraft. If it succeeds in getting off the ground, it will pave the way for more distant missions in the future.
This is why ingenuity is so resourceful.
If you’re curious about how NASA got a helicopter to Mars but you didn’t hear anything about it, it’s likely because NASA’s Perseverance rover has gotten all the attention. Ingenuity is both a mission and a technological presentation. It is not possible to conduct research on Mars. It’s designed to demonstrate that powered flight is possible on another planet.
During Perseverance’s long journey from Earth to Mars, which began in July, ingenuity was tucked away in the rover’s belly. Ingenuity was safe and sound from the rough, cold Martian surface until April 4, when Perseverance carefully deposited the chopper onto the soil.
Ingenuity was secured and powered by the rover’s suite of instruments while onboard Perseverance. However, until it was dropped off and Perseverance rolled away, Ingenuity was left cold and alone. At night, the temperature on Mars drops well below zero, to about minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately, Ingenuity proved that it can withstand the cold by surviving its first night apart from its rover companion.
The cabin doors are now closed
There are numerous obstacles to overcome in order to achieve flight on Mars, but the air is the most important.
The atmospheres of the red planet and Earth is vastly different. Since the Martian atmosphere is so thin in comparison to our own, achieving lift is even more difficult. This is a dilemma that requires ingenuity to solve. Although it’s been named everything from a chopper to a flier, a helicopter to a rotorcraft, the technology it most closely resembles is that of a drone.
The blades, on the other hand, are much larger than those of a similar-sized craft on Earth, and they spin at about 2,400 rpm, which is six times faster than those of an Earth-based craft. Earth-based experiments have shown that Ingenuity should be able to get off the ground on Mars with ease at this pace and scale.
The vehicle is not piloted in real-time. In fact, the team had to send instructions to the craft ahead of time and will collect data after it has taken off. Ingenuity is designed to be self-sufficient and stable during the time it takes to communicate between the two planets.
Ingenuity has already proven itself in several ways: it has survived the journey to Mars, has established itself on the surface, and has survived its first night alone in the cold.
“If Ingenuity proves that we can successfully pilot aircraft on other planets, it will hugely expand the options for exploration in the future,” says Jonti Horner.
Flight is an excellent means of discovery. If robots can remain in the air for long periods of time, they would be able to rapidly climb mountainous regions, explore cracks in hillsides, travel over lakes or lake beds, and escape risk. They would even be able to snare samples and return them to a rolling robot with the right equipment. You might also picture a Mars rover-rotorcraft combination in the future, enabling space agencies to more precisely scout their landing position and determine where to roll to the next day.