later this week, NASA plans to bring its fourth Mars rover, Perseverance, on a six-month journey to the Red Planet. Fortitude will boot up a mission to collect Martian dirt samples that may contain traces of ancient life, to return them to Earth by another mission later this decade. It would carry a payload unlike anything that’s ever been extended into space: a small autonomous helicopter called Ingenuity. Rarely next spring, perhaps in April, Ingenuity will spin its rotor blades and become the first spacecraft to travel to Mars.
“I see it as the Wright Brothers moment on another planet,” says Bob Balaram, chief engineer of the Mars helicopter project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “It’s a high-risk, high-reward mission that can enable us to visit many places we haven’t been able to go before.”
Satellites are good at gaining a global understanding of the planet, and rovers are great at exploring relatively small amounts of terrain in minute detail. For everything in between, it helps to have an aerial system. A rover can cover only a few dozen kilometers over the course of several years, but future supernatural drones can easily cover in a day. They could take an aerial snapshot to help a rover route the best or to collect samples and return to a stationary lander for analysis. Innate will not be able to do any real science, but it is the first step towards a supernatural plane that can.
Ingenuity’s hardware – cameras, communications equipment, avionics – is loaded into a small cube that will be suspended in the air with four spindly legs that make it look like a robotic insect. Above, are two pairs of rotor blades, each four feet in diameter, sandwiched between Ingenuity’s body and a rectangular solar panel. The entire device weighs less than a full two-liter soda bottle, but it is hardy enough to withstand the extreme environment encountered during launch, landing, and its day-to-day existence on the Mardi surface.
Once Mars has perseverance, he will spend a few weeks examining his system. If everything looks good, the first order of business would be to find a clearing to drop off your passenger in the rock-strep gizero crater. (And it will literally be dropped – the helicopter attaches to the rover’s belly.) Once the rover and the helicopter part ways, the helicopter’s days are numbered. Balaram and his team would only have a month to operate up to five test flights. Says Balaram, “The whole purpose of this expedition is to obtain engineering data, so we can say that it worked the way we thought it would and there were no surprises on Mars.” “Beyond 30 days, we’ll just be a distraction.”
Like the famous flight test of the Wright brothers in Kitty Hawk, will be in the air for only a few seconds in its first flight. This would be an almost exact replica of Asha Balaram’s flight tests and his crew back to Earth, so that they could make apples to apples against the helicopter’s performance against expectations. If all goes well, Ingenuity will attempt an increasingly challenging flight profile. The helicopter is designed to fly up to 15 feet in the air and can travel from its takeoff point to three football fields. Its battery limits it to 90 seconds of flight, but it will be more than enough for the types of flight demos to do on Mars.
For Balaram, it has been a long time since the first Martian flight arrived. He made a plan for a supernatural helicopter in the late 1990s – though the idea was not new – after watching a conference presentation by Elan Crew, an aerospace engineer at Stanford University, who had been working on a coin for the past few years. There were – shaped atmospheric research drone called Messicopter. As the crew and their team knew very well from their research, aerodynamics tend to be crisp at small scales, making flight difficult to control. “We soon realize that flying Messi-scale devices on Earth, to fly larger vehicles on Mars, was at least aerodynamically similar,” Crew says. “We started working with Bob Balaram and Jet Propulsion Lab to take our small rotor designs and scale them to fly on Mars.”