Ingenuity, the first powered flight on Mars
Perseverance is a science mission, and as part of that mission, they’re testing out new technologies. The Ingenuity helicopter (named by competition winner Vaneeza Rupani) is one of those technologies. It will be the first test of powered flight on another planet. I was curious to learn more about the helicopter and the complexities of powered flight on Mars.
Ingenuity is a super lightweight helicopter, weighing in at just 1.8kg (4 pounds, or around the weight of a 15in laptop). Despite its small size, scientists specifically designed it to survive the harsh Martian environment. The atmosphere on Mars is less than 1% the density of Earth’s. And with such a thin atmosphere, it’s really cold out there. Overnight, temperatures at Jezero crater can reach -90°C. Additionally, the makeup of the gases in the atmosphere is different: the Martian atmosphere is 95.1% CO2, whereas Earth’s atmosphere is 78% Nitrogen and 21% Oxygen. Not surprisingly, scientists expect that powered flight there will be very different than it is here.
Mars’s very thin atmosphere
Perseverance is searching for signs of ancient life on Mars, because once upon a time many billions of years ago, the climate there may have been warm, wet, and hospitable to life. Not so much today (see the photos from our previous post, the one from Perseverance’s landing, and this animation from NASA of what Mars may have looked like long ago).
In 2013, NASA launched MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission), a mission to orbit Mars to study the climate history of the planet. To achieve its mission, MAVEN is equipped with instruments to analyse the solar wind and ionosphere of Mars.
I highly recommended checking out the definition in NASA’s SpacePlace for kids (and adults that have forgotten much of what they learned in science class). Basically, it’s a part of the upper atmosphere where gases meet solar radiation to form ions (electrically charged particles). The ionosphere is important for radio waves, and we can thank it for auroras as well. Earth has a substantial and complex ionosphere, while Mars has a single layer ionosphere.
Back to MAVEN’s findings
Data from MAVEN show that solar winds and storms strip gases away from the atmosphere. Over billions of years, the atmosphere has been whittled down to very little. Thankfully for us, Earth has a globally-generated magnetic field that deflects these solar winds, but Mars doesn’t.
“The solar wind is a stream of particles, mainly protons and electrons, flowing from the sun’s atmosphere at a speed of about one million miles per hour. The magnetic field carried by the solar wind as it flows past Mars can generate an electric field, much as a turbine on Earth can be used to generate electricity. This electric field accelerates electrically charged gas atoms, called ions, in Mars’ upper atmosphere and shoots them into space.”
With a depleted atmosphere, Mars has become a cold and uninhabitable planet. Flying there will be a different experience, apparently akin to flying at of 30,000m in Earth’s atmosphere. Conventional helicopters on Earth are typically below 30,000 feet. If scientists can figure it out, it could open up much more of the planet to exploration on future missions.
Flying Ingenuity in a thin atmosphere
Ingenuity will remain attached to Perseverance for 30 to 60 days while researchers at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) keep tabs on the solar-charged battery and the base station, which is used for communication. Once deployed, Ingenuity will have a 30-day window for flying. The first test will actually just be whether Ingenuity can survive the frigid temperatures overnight.
If the battery charges properly, and Ingenuity survives the cold, we can look forward to up to five test flights over a month. To fly in such a thin atmosphere, the team at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) had to design a helicopter that was lightweight with enough energy to power a very fast rotor. The rotor spins at 2,400rpm, around 5x faster than conventional helicopters on Earth.
Ingenuity’s flight time will max out at 90 seconds, and it will be flying itself autonomously using sensor data and images of the terrain. Due to the time it takes for data to transmit to Earth, it just isn’t practical for the JPL team to attempt to fly the helicopter remotely.
This video from NASA shows some pretty interesting footage of the testing environment, as well as an animation of what flight might look like on Mars.
I look forward to hearing about what NASA/JPL learn about powered flight on another planet. I know the main focus of this experiment is just getting off the ground, but it’s hard to not get excited about the prospect of much more extensive exploration of Mars on future missions.