UPDATE: The Mars Helicopter’s first flight was successful, conducting the first ever flight on another planet.
The Mars Helicopter team is just hours away from knowing whether the helicopter flew safely or not. But before that, let’s briefly talk about this little advanced robot and how it flies on Mars’s thin atmosphere.
The Mission of the Mars Helicopter
The Mars Helicopter is named by Vaneeza Rupani which is an 11th-grader who suggested the name “Ingenuity”. It was in the belly of the Perseverance rover from before launch, and it was successfully deployed onto the surface of Mars on April 3. It was launched on July 30, 2020
Unlike Perseverance, Ingenuity does not carry any science instruments. That’s because its sole purpose is to prove that flight is possible on Mars. It’s a technology demonstration, and it has to lose as much weight as possible to make it fly more easily on the thin Martian atmosphere.
The Structure of Ingenuity
Ingenuity is designed to be as light as possible, and it only contains essential parts. It needs a power source to operate, so there is a solar panel that charges six lithium-ion batteries. Moreover, there is an antenna on top of the solar panel to talk to our planet. Furthermore, there is a counter-rotating system of four blades above the fuselage and below the solar panel to generate lift. It also has to carry two cameras for navigation and snap some pictures. Of course, it needs a fuselage to carry the computers, batteries, and heaters to keep the helicopter operational and four landing legs to protect it on landing.
How Did the Helicopter Reach the Ground from Perseverance?
Well, a significant problem before it flies is to deploy the helicopter to the surface of Mars. Initially, it’s stowed sideways, and it needs a series of actions to get itself to the ground.
Firstly, Ingenuity needs to be vertical. At that point, it has to rotate itself and extend two of its landing legs. This process involves cutting some cables so that the helicopter doesn’t remain stuck in its unfavorable position.
After that, two of the landing legs will still point upward, and it is extended quickly. At that time, only very little connection is present between the two robots, and Perseverance utilized its final opportunity to charge the helicopter to 100%.
When the helicopter dropped to the Martian surface, the rover drove away immediately. That’s because Ingenuity is solar-powered, and it has to prevent itself from getting into Perseverance’s shadow.
How Does the Helicopter Fly?
Well, Ingenuity spins the blades to about 2400 RPM, and it will create enough lift to heft it. Now, the helicopter is very lightweight because it has to reduce the energy necessary to leave the ground. Even so, Ingenuity can only fly up to 90 seconds at a time due to energy constraints from the tiny batteries. Then, it needs at least a full Martian day to charge the batteries before it can fly again.
How Does NASA Confirm that It’s Ready for Flight?
NASA did some tests on Mars before its first flight. For example, NASA tested the power system to ensure that the solar panels are working correctly and can recharge the batteries. Other than that, NASA also spun the blades to make sure they’re unlocked appropriately. Besides, the space agency spun the blades to the speed needed for flight. However, the final test is where things go bumpy and is why NASA rescheduled the first flight of the helicopter.
When the helicopter tried to switch to “Flight mode”, something went wrong and the watchdog timer stopped the test from continuing. Fortunately, NASA eliminated this software problem by adding a few commands to the flight sequence. MiMi Aung, the project manager of the Mars Helicopter, stated that according to some testing on Earth, the approach will allow the mode transition with an 85% probability.
In this article, we’ve given an introduction to the Mars Helicopter. Now, the helicopter may have already conducted its first flight, and the engineers may be waiting for Perseverance to transmit the flight data back to Earth. Live announcement of Ingenuity’s fate will take place at 3:15 a.m. (UTC-7). Let’s hope it can live to tell the tale and has a successful flight!
References and Credits
- NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. (n.d.). Mars Helicopter. Retrieved April 19, 2021, from https://mars.nasa.gov/technology/helicopter/
- NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. (2020, April 29). Alabama High School Student Names NASA’s Mars Helicopter. Retrieved April 19, 2021, from https://mars.nasa.gov/news/8659/alabama-high-school-student-names-nasas-mars-helicopter/
- Stephen Clark. (2021, April 19). NASA schedules first Mars helicopter test flight for Monday. Retrieved April 19, 2021, from https://spaceflightnow.com/2021/04/18/nasa-schedules-first-mars-helicopter-test-flight-for-monday/
- NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (2021, January 27). Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Landing Press Kit. Retrieved April 19, 2021, from https://mars.nasa.gov/system/downloadable_items/45586_ingenuity_landing_press_kit.pdf
- NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. (2021, March 23). NASA Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Prepares for First Flight. Retrieved April 19, 2021, from https://mars.nasa.gov/news/8896/nasa-ingenuity-mars-helicopter-prepares-for-first-flight/
- Bob Balaram. (2021, April 2). It’s Cold on Mars. Retrieved April 19, 2021, from https://mars.nasa.gov/technology/helicopter/status/288/its-cold-on-mars/
- (2021, April 17). NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity aces troublesome spin test. Retrieved April 19, 2021, from https://www.space.com/mars-helicopter-second-spin-test-success
- MiMi Aung. (2021, April 18). Why We Choose to Try Our First Helicopter Flight on Monday. Retrieved April 19, 2021, from https://mars.nasa.gov/technology/helicopter/status/293/why-we-choose-to-try-our-first-helicopter-flight-on-monday/