At NASA, what vehicle systems visit

Ingenuity: Flying on Mars is possible

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A vision: A small drone the size of a suitcase hovers down into a dark crevice on the Mars - perhaps a lava cave that was formed billions of years ago by volcanic activity on the Red Planet. The drone illuminates its surroundings and takes pictures of views that a person has never seen before, while its instruments search for signs of past or present extraterrestrial signs of life. After completing the exploration, the drone flies back to a landing zone on the surface to send the valuable data back to Earth. After recharging her batteries thanks to the sunlight on Mars, she continues her exploration of the terrain inaccessible to other machines.

It has little to do with science fiction - on the contrary: thanks to the resounding success of Ingenuity - NASA's rotorcraft, also known as a helicopter or drone - such a mission could soon become a reality. The technology demonstration for this took place on Mars in the past few weeks. The small machine, weighing only 1.8 kilograms, was brought to the planet by NASA's Perseverance rover. What followed was the first attempt at controlled flight on another world - more than a century after the Wright brothers accomplished this feat on Earth. "We can now say that humans have flown a rover spacecraft on another planet," said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in an address to her mission control team after the successful first flight on April 19th. "We have our Wright Brothers moment together now."

"We can now say that humans have flown a rover spaceship on another planet"
(MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager)

This article is featured in Spectrum - The Week, 20/2021

The success of Ingenuity is causing aerospace researchers to rethink the role aircraft could play in exploring the solar system. Few worlds have the necessary conditions for motorized aerodynamic flight - namely, an atmosphere and a rocky surface like those of Mars or Earth - but there are two other factors worth mentioning. "The general technique of air flight also works in places like [Saturn's moon] Titan and Venus," said Bob Balaram, chief engineer of the Ingenuity team, in a press briefing after the first flight.

The extremely high temperatures and high air pressure on Venus present some unique challenges. "It's more like swimming near the surface," says Paul Byrne, a planetary researcher at North Carolina State University. Nevertheless, the flight there is not impossible, as proved by the Vega balloons of the Soviet Union in 1985. With a rotorcraft called Dragonfly under development and scheduled to visit Titan for the next decade, and work on a conceptual successor to Ingenuity continues, the future looks bright for exploring alien worlds from the air. "This could be the beginning of a new era," says Byrne.

A bright future for exploring strange worlds

Ingenuity's first flight from a strip of land in Jezero Crater on Mars now called Wright Brothers Field was humble but impressive: the planet's atmosphere is incredibly thin, only one percent that of Earth, so it's is extremely difficult to generate buoyancy. "It's like being about 100,000 feet above the ground," says Ben Pipenberg, an engineer at defense company AeroVironment who helped build Ingenuity. While Perseverance watched from a safe distance, the Mars helicopter Ingenuity spun its rotors at 2500 revolutions per minute to ascend to a height of three meters, where it hovered for 30 seconds and made a 96-degree turn. Then it sank back to the ground and landed on its four legs, with a total flight time of 39.1 seconds.

From then on, things got more complex. The second flight lasted 51.9 seconds and reached a height of five meters. And it involved a sideways movement of about two meters - something that wasn't possible in the cramped test chamber on Earth where Ingenuity first flew under simulated Martian conditions. On flight three, Ingenuity covered half the length of a soccer field, around 50 meters, and reached a top speed of just over two meters per second. The fourth flight on April 30th was pushed to the limit once again: Ingenuity stayed in the air for almost two minutes and reached an impressive speed of 3.5 meters per second while scouting a potential future landing zone and doing a round trip of more than 260 Meters covered. Ingenuity's fifth flight - which was completed on May 7th and was originally scheduled to be the last - took him on a one-way trip to the new landing zone to await the arrival of Perseverance, his mother ship.