It was in 1903 when two visionary brothers attempted a daring feat of inventing, building, and flying the world’s first successful motor-operated aeroplane. In just over 100 years, the invention pioneered by the Wright brothers —much more advanced, technically superior but elementary in design— is set for another challenge, this time over 208 million km away from home— on Mars.
The Ingenuity helicopter, strapped to the Perseverance rover, landed on the Red Planet on February 18 with one mission — to test powered flight in the Martian atmosphere and to pave the way for the manned mission of the future. The copter will remain attached to the belly of the rover for 30 to 60 days before scientists roll it out on the Martian surface. For now, it remains cocooned in its electrical box (base station) on the rover that stores and routes communications between the rotorcraft and Earth.
“There are two big-ticket items we are looking for, the state of charge of Ingenuity’s batteries as well as the confirmation the base station is operating as designed, commanding heaters to turn off and on to keep the helicopter’s electronics within an expected range,” Tim Canham, Ingenuity Mars Helicopter operations lead at JPL said in a statement. “Both appear to be working great. With this positive report, we will move forward with tomorrow’s charge of the helicopter’s batteries,” Canham added.
One of Ingenuity’s first objectives, when it is rolled out on the surface, is just to survive the frigid Martian night for the first time. (JPL)
Once Ingenuity is deployed to Mars’ surface, the helicopter’s batteries will be charged solely by its own solar panel.
A flight demonstration in alien atmosphere
The Ingenuity mission, part of the Perseverance rover, aims to broaden the horizon of science in terms of adding the aerial dimension to Mars exploration, which remains unavailable to date. The data could prove critical if manned missions are to take in the future. While the helicopter does not carry science instruments and is a ride-along on the mission, it’s objective is solely from an engineering standpoint, to demonstrate rotorcraft flight in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars amid bone-chilling temperatures as nights get as cold as minus 90 degrees Celsius.
One of Ingenuity’s first objectives, when it is rolled out on the surface, is just to survive the frigid Martian night for the first time. While tests on Earth in similar temperatures showed the craft should work as designed, scientists are still cautious and concerned. If Ingenuity survives the first night the team will proceed with the first attempted flight of an aircraft on another world.
The helicopter will then have a 30-Martian-day or 31-Earth-day experimental flight test window.
The first liftoff beyond Earth
According to Nasa’s JPL, Mars has a rarefied atmosphere – just about 1 per cent of the density of the Earth atmosphere. As the Martian atmosphere is much less dense, Ingenuity is designed to be light, with rotor blades that are much larger and spin much faster than what would be required for a helicopter of Ingenuity’s mass on Earth.
The copter will remain attached to the belly of the rover for 30 to 60 days before scientists roll it out on the Martian surface. (JPL)
However, gravity will be a friend. The Martian gravity is only about one-third that of Earth’s, which means slightly more mass can be lifted at a given spin rate. “If Ingenuity succeeds in taking off and hovering during its first flight, over 90 per cent of the project’s goals will have been achieved,” Nasa said in a statement. If the rotorcraft lands successfully and remains operable, up to four more flights could be attempted, each one building on the success of the last.
A smart copter
Due to the massive distance between Earth and Mars, the communication between the helicopter, once operational, and the ground station will be delayed by over 11 minutes which will make it difficult to operate it with a joystick, unlike other aircraft. The copter has, therefore, been designed to make some of its own decisions based on parameters pre-set by its engineers on Earth. “Ingenuity will analyse sensor data and images of the terrain to ensure it stays on the flight path programmed by project engineers,” JPL said. More than 1,500 individual pieces of carbon fibre, flight-grade aluminium, silicon, copper, foil and foam have been used in designing the smart copter.
If the rotorcraft lands successfully and remains operable, up to four more flights could be attempted. (JPL)
The helicopter may fly for up to 90 seconds, to distances of almost 300 meters at a time and about 10 to 15 feet from the ground on its own. “We are in uncharted territory. Just about every milestone from here through the end of our flight demonstration program will be a first, and each has to succeed for us to go on to the next,” said MiMi Aung, project manager for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at JPL.
Next-generation rotorcraft, the descendants of Ingenuity, could add an aerial dimension to future exploration of the Red Planet. These advanced robotic flying vehicles would offer a unique viewpoint not provided by current orbiters high overhead or by rovers and landers on the ground.
If the mission goes successful, the late Wright brothers would have another feather in their cap of aviation pioneering.