Cheers erupted in mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as controllers confirmed that NASA’s Perseverance rover, with the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter attached to its belly, has touched down safely on Mars. Engineers are analyzing the data flowing back from the spacecraft.
Something to look forward to: NASA’s latest explorer rover is set to make contact with Mars’ surface next month, on February 18. It’s an important step for the space agency, and not just due to the rover itself: its cargo is equally important. The Perseverance rover is carrying the first-ever “Mars Helicopter,” aptly known as Ingenuity.
Ingenuity is a small, lightweight helicopter with two rotors, each made from durable carbon fiber. The rotors will spin in opposing directions, at speeds of “around 2,400 rpm,” which is “many times” faster than what you’d see on any passenger helicopter on Earth.
So, why are those speeds necessary, and why is Ingenuity so light? According to NASA, Mars’ extremely thin atmosphere is to blame. With much less usable air than Earth, any flying vehicle attempting to fly on the Red Planet would need considerably faster rotors to generate enough lift to get off the ground.
With travel greatly restricted across the planet, you might feel a little jealous of the three robotic explorers scheduled to depart to Mars in the next month. From this week until mid-August, a bevy of spacecraft will depart Earth with a one-way ticket to the red planet, tasked with uncovering secrets about past life and the planet’s unusual atmosphere.
NASA will send the Perseverance rover, a next-gen wanderer that will explore an ancient lake bed, looking for evidence of alien life. The Chinese space agency is launching a triple threat: An orbiter, lander and rover are on a mission to make China just the third country to land on Mars. And then there’s Hope, the United Arab Emirates’ orbiter, set to study the Martian atmosphere like never before.
It might seem unusual so many Mars missions are launching in such a small amount of time, but I can assure you it’s not because the robots have achieved sentience and decided to flee the garbage fire that 2020 has become. It’s just physics.
NASA is making the final preparations for its Mars 2020 mission, set for launch in July.
The space agency recently reported the completion of important testing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, close to where the rocket and spacecraft carrying the recently named Perseverance rover will lift off in three months’ time.
The testing included the last spin of NASA’s Mars Helicopter rotor blades, which will be heading to the Red Planet attached to Perseverance. In the trial, engineers rotated the blades at 50 revolutions per minute, far slower than the approximately 2,500 revolutions per minute that the blades will make during actual deployment.
Since the Wright brothers first took to the skies of Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, Dec. 17, 1903, first flights have been important milestones in the life of any vehicle designed for air travel. After all, it’s one thing to design an aircraft and make it fly on paper – or computer. It is quite another to put all the pieces together and watch them get off the ground.
In late January 2019, all the pieces making up the flight model (actual vehicle going to the Red Planet) of NASA’s Mars Helicopter were put to the test.
Weighing in at no more than 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms), the helicopter is a technology demonstration project currently going through the rigorous verification process certifying it for Mars.
The majority of the testing the flight model is going through had to do with demonstrating how it can operate on Mars, including how it performs at Mars-like temperatures. Can the helicopter survive – and function – in cold temperatures, including nights with temperatures as low as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius)?
All this testing is geared towards February 2021, when the helicopter will reach the surface of the Red Planet, firmly nestled under the belly of the Mars 2020 rover. A few months later, it will be deployed and test flights (up to 90 seconds long) will begin – the first from the surface of another world.
The US space agency, NASA, has announced that its Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will be sending a helicopter to the Red Planet on the upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission. It will land on Mars while attached to the bottom of the rover in February 2021. During the first 30 days of the mission, it will undertake several autonomous flights, each lasting up to 90 seconds to send the first aerial images (not taken by a satellite) of Mars back to Earth.
For the small helicopter to fly, it takes an enormous engineering effort. The thin air on Mars is comparable to conditions on Earth at an altitude of 30km. Also, taking the reduced Martian gravity into account, the helicopter needs to be very light (1.8kg) and can only carry small batteries.
The components used therefore must be extremely energy-efficient. Six of maxon motors’ 10mm diameter DCX precision micro motors, which have been used in previous Mars missions, will be used to move the swashplate, adjusting the inclination of the rotor blades, to control the vehicle.
The propulsion system is designed and built by AeroVironment, working closely with maxon engineers, under contract from JPL.
“Being part of another Mars pioneering project makes us incredibly proud,” says Eugen Elmiger, CEO of maxon motor.
A Southern California company that specializes in small drones for the military has an opportunity to contribute to aviation history: the first aerial flight on Mars.
AeroVironment Inc. is making the rotors, landing gear and material to hold solar panels for the Mars Helicopter project, which will be assembled at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. The device will deploy from NASA’s latest Mars rover in 2020, taking high-resolution images that can determine where the slower-wheeled vehicle should head next.
The drone helicopter will look somewhat similar to a hobbyist device you might see whiz by on the beach. But it will incorporate years of research into the challenges of flying in a thin atmosphere that has similar density to about 100,000 feet above Earth’s sea level.
“There’s been a lot of doubts about being able to even fly in the atmosphere of Mars,” said Wahid Nawabi, chief executive of the Monrovia-based company. “It’s been over 100 years since the Kitty Hawk moment. This is the next event.”
Excitement has been building for NASA’s next rover mission to Mars, scheduled to launch sometime in 2020. Although it looks a lot like the current Curiosity rover, its mission will be to search directly for possible evidence of past life. Curiosity, on the other hand, is studying the ancient habitability of Gale crater, which we now know used to hold a lake or series of lakes, focusing more on geology than biology. And now the upcoming 2020 mission just got even better – NASA has approved the inclusion of a tiny drone-like helicopter to accompany the rover!
This is something never done before, and assuming it’s successful, will be the first time that Mars has been robotically explored by something other than an orbiter, lander or rover.
The Mars Helicopter will be a small, drone-like autonomous rotorcraft, designed specifically for Mars’ very thin atmosphere; it will provide a unique and exciting new way to see the Martian landscape as never before – a bird’s-eye view, if you will. And of course, it’s just very cool.
Flight tests have resumed on subscale aircraft that could one day observe the Martian atmosphere and a variant that will improve collection of Earth’s weather data.
Work on the shape of the aircraft and the systems it will need to fly autonomously and collect data are ongoing for the Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars, or Prandtl-M aircraft. Student interns with support from staff members at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center in California are advancing the project.
The March flights included two slightly different Prandtl-M aerodynamic models that were air launched from a remotely piloted Carbon Cub. The research validated the airframe that will be the basis for a potential Mars aircraft and the Weather Hazard Alert and Awareness Technology Radiation Radiosonde (WHAATRR) Glider on Earth.
When I think of airplanes on Mars, I imagine a sci-fi scenario with robotic winged flying machines swarming through the Martian air, gathering data like a flock of hyper-intelligent space seagulls.
The first airplane on Mars will be pretty far from this fantasy. Chances are, it will look a lot more like a kind of glider that’s already in use on Earth, according to a NASA photo released Monday.
The proposed Prandtl-m aircraft is a relatively dainty flying-wing-style plane. The prototype will be based on the existing Prandtl-d, a radio-controlled glider designed and built by aerospace engineering students during a NASA internship in 2012 and 2013.