Ingenuity, a small helicopter attached to the belly of the Perseverance rover, landed on Mars in the Jezero crater on 18 February 2021. Its mission is completely independent of the rover’s mission and aims to provide purely a demonstration of technology.
With Mars being a distance of approximately 300 million km away, radio signals take many minutes to travel between the planets. This means the helicopter has to be completely autonomous. Ingenuity receives commands from Earth relayed through the rover and uses solar power to charge itself and has internal heaters to maintain operational temperatures.
Ingenuity also has two cameras onboard. A black-and-white navigation camera that points down to the ground to track the surface features below and a high-resolution colour camera that looks out to the horizon. Most of the images taken so far have not yet arrived at Earth. The relay satellites around Mars have restricted bandwidths so the engineering data that details the flights performance is prioritised for immediate return.
Over a 30 Martian-day test period, the helicopter is expected to take up to 5 test flights.
It first became airborne on 19 April 2021 marking the first powered and controlled flight in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars and the first in any other world. During its first flight the helicopter rose to about 3 metres, hovered in the air briefly, completed a turn of 96 degrees, and then landed. The whole flight lasted about 40 seconds.
Ingenuity completed its second flight on 22 April 2021, which lasted for 51.9 seconds.
25 April 2021 marked the third flight of the Ingenuity helicopter. This flight had been conducted at speeds and distances beyond previous demonstration and even in testing on Earth. Ingenuity rose 5 metres and travelled horizontally at a top speed of 2 metres per second for 50 metres. That is half the length of a football field!
Ingenuity added a fourth flight to the history books on the 30th of April, reaching 5 metres in height and travelling 133 metres and back. Its fifth and final test flight on 7th of May, when it reached twice as high as before and took photos from 10 metres up! Although this is the end of Ingenuity’s planned mission, NASA has plans to keep “[flying] Ingenuity in a manner that does not reduce the pace of Perseverance science operations.”
Similar helicopters could perform as robotic scouts for rover
The performance of the 1.8 kg drone in these test flights will help inform decisions about small helicopters for future Mars missions. Similar helicopters could perform as robotic scouts for rovers, surveying terrain from above, and would give scientists a new perspective on a region’s geology. It could even allow scientists to explore areas that are too difficult to send a rover to.
In the distant future, helicopters like Ingenuity may even aid astronauts in their exploration of Mars and other worlds.
NASA has already approved another helicopter mission, Dragonfly. Dragonfly is planned for launch in 2026, with arrival in 2034 on the surface of Saturn’s largest moon Titan. This mission will explore environments from organic dunes to the floor of an impact crater where liquid water and complex organic materials are thought to have once existed. Dragonfly’s instruments will then study how far prebiotic chemistry may have progressed on the moon’s surface.
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