Ingenuity is a small robotic helicopter operating on Mars as part of NASA’s 2020 Mars mission. On April 19, 2021, it successfully completed its first controlled flight driven by an airplane on a planet outside the Earth, with vertical take-off, hovering and landing-it should only fly 5 times. However, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter on Mars has completed 12 flights and is not ready to retire.
The Ingenuity helicopter was originally designed for four flights on Mars and was the first aircraft to attempt a powered flight in another world. 4 pounds each. As a proof of concept, the helicopter (1.8 kg) folded in the belly of the Perseverance Rover to reach Mars, and was initially expected to fly only four times within 30 Martian days (called the Sun). The solar-powered helicopter completed its main mission in April, and NASA expanded its business. In this expansion phase, Ingenuity is used for reconnaissance, finding interesting locations for the Perseverance rover.
The device carried a piece of cloth from the wing of the Wright aircraft in 1903, the Wright brothers’ aircraft used for the first controlled flight on earth that was heavier than aerodynamics. Ingenuity’s initial take-off and landing area was named Wright Brothers Airport as a tribute. Before Ingenuity, the first flight of any type on planets other than Earth was an unpowered balloon flight on Venus, completed in 1985 by the Soviet Vega 1 spacecraft.
The third flight exceeded the expected lateral range, and the fourth flight on April 30 exceeded the flight duration. With these technical successes, Ingenuity achieved its original goal. NASA subsequently planned more flights as operational demonstrations, hoping to show how future missions work together. In its fourth flight on April 30, 2021, Ingenuity became the first interplanetary spacecraft to record sound by another interplanetary spacecraft, Perseverance rover.
In view of its unexpected success, NASA extended the Ingenuity mission indefinitely and became the regular travel partner of the Perseverance rover, whose main mission was to find signs of ancient life on Mars.
Hundreds of people contributed to the project, although only about a dozen people currently retain their daily roles. Ravitch joined the team five years ago. His initial suspicion is understandable: the density of air on Mars is only one percent of that of Mars. The atmosphere of the earth. In contrast, flying a helicopter on Mars is like flying nearly 20 miles (30 kilometers) above Earth.
First, reaching Mars is not easy. The device must withstand the initial shock from the Earth and land on the red planet on February 18 after seven months of space travel, and be attached to the abdomen of the rover.
After entering the new environment, this small helicopter (4 pounds or 1.8 kg) had to endure the severe cold of Mars at night, absorbing heat from the solar panels that charge its batteries during the day. Its flight is guided by a series of sensors, because the 15-minute communication delay from the earth makes real-time guidance impossible.
On April 19th, Ingenuity made its first flight and made history. It became the first mobile spacecraft to fly over another planet. It exceeded all expectations. It flew 11 more times.
“I think by flight three we had actually accomplished all of our engineering goals … (and) got all the information we had hoped to get,” said Ravich, who works for NASA’s famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which developed the helicopter.
Since then, Ingenuity’s flight altitude has reached 39 feet (12 meters), and its last flight lasted 2 minutes and 49 seconds. He drove 1.6 miles in total. In May, Ingenuity performed its first one-way mission, landing outside a relatively flat airport, which was carefully selected as its initial home.
But not everything went well. His sixth flight brought some excitement. The small aircraft recovered after a dangerous loss of balance due to a malfunction affecting photos taken in flight to help stabilize it. He landed safely and the problem was solved. Ingenuity is now sent to explore the path of perseverance, using its high-resolution color camera.
The purpose is twofold: to draw a safe and scientifically meaningful path for the rover, especially in terms of geology. Ken Farley, who leads the Perseverance Science team, explained how the photos taken by Ingenuity during the 12th flight showed that an area called South Seitha was not as interesting as the scientists expected, so the rover might not be sent there.
After staying on this red planet for more than six months, this small drone-like spacecraft has gained more and more attention on Earth, appearing on coffee cups and T-shirts sold online.
“The environment has been very cooperative so far: the temperatures, the wind, the sun, the dust in the air… It’s still very cold, but it could have been a lot worse,” said Ravich.
In theory, the helicopter should be able to continue to operate for a period of time. But the upcoming Martian winter will be full of challenges: NASA engineers now have Ingenuity flight data, and they are already studying their next-generation successors.
“Something in the 20 to 30 kilograms (range) maybe, able to carry science payloads,” said Ravich.
These future payloads may include rock samples collected by Perseverance. NASA plans to recover these samples on future missions, sometime in the 2030s.
The ingenious team plans to fly the helicopter indefinitely during its current extended mission. Operation demonstration stage every two to three weeks. This will have a challenging mission, the winter of Mars and the solar conjunction of Mars, during which both the perseverance and wisdom of the rover will stop on the surface during the operation in order to survive. The first occurrence of this situation is the solar energy integration of Mars in 2021. In mid-October, when Mars will be moving behind the sun, roaming on Mars, and the ground mission control team, for this to block communication. Time preparation work will begin in mid-September in 2021. If the helicopter continues to respond to such a severe period or after a power outage, JPL can continue to fly, otherwise, JPL will terminate its mission.
The device is designed to demonstrate the technology needed to fly in the Martian atmosphere. If successful, these technologies could enable other advanced robotic aircrafts that can be included in future robotic and human missions to Mars. They can provide a unique vantage point that currently cannot be provided by the overhead orbiter or the rover and lander on the ground, provide high-definition imaging and reconnaissance for robots or humans, and allow the rover to enter difficult-to-reach terrain.