Starting this Wednesday (14), if all goes well, the first self-sufficient flight of a man-made aircraft should take place on another planet on Mars. And just like the first planes on Earth, it won’t be as impressive – but it will be historic.
The Mars helicopter, later called Ingenuity (“ingenuity”), was a short-term addition to the Mars 2020 mission that took the Perseverance rover to the Jezero crater.
Here is an old Martian lake near a river delta that has been dry for billions of years. The main job of the surface vehicle is to seek evidence of early life on Mars.
The main aim of the helicopter, on the other hand, is to demonstrate its own viability. And as far as the original mission planning depended, he wouldn’t even be on board.
A JPL team had developed something like this since 2014 and received relatively modest funding over the years to keep the shuttlecock from dropping. But it wasn’t until 2018, after the team received $ 23 million, that it said it would be possible to complete development in time to fly the Mars 2020 mission.
The first reaction from Mission Management, under the command of Project Manager John McNamee of JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), was that it did not fit. But then came the pressure from NASA headquarters to adapt, given the pull an aircraft could have on Mars. Judging by the public enthusiasm for Ingenuity’s upcoming flight, it was a wise estimate.
Result: Endurance engineers have found a way to install it under the rover, in a position that brings less risk and uncertainty to the rover. After all, one cost $ 2.8 billion and the other cost an $ 85 million experimental vehicle.
“Since nobody wanted to risk it, Ingenuity was second to none in the belly of the rover. If it did fall, perseverance wouldn’t complicate it, ”says Cassio Barbosa, astronomer at the Centro Universitário FEI. “And then the rover watches from a distance when it takes off.”
The physics of aerodynamic flight is well known. But Earth and Mars are two very different planets, which makes the challenge quite unique.
Our planet has a gravity two and a half times stronger than its neighbor, which of course makes the start easier. On the other hand, the density of the Martian atmosphere is one-hundredth the density of the Earth, which makes the force generated by rotors much less.
The development team tested Ingenuity in the laboratory as often as possible. They made a smaller and lighter technical version to simulate the weight on Mars and placed it in a chamber under an atmosphere of similar density to Mars. But not even the best simulations correspond to the reality of another world.
That means, every step of the way is new. “Every milestone from here to the end of our flight demonstration program will be a novelty, and everyone will have to work so we can move on to the next,” says MiMi Aung, the Burmese-American engineer who manages the Ingenuity project at JPL.
Challenges already faced include placing the mini-helicopter on the surface and demonstrating that the internal heating system, powered by solar panels, enables the vehicle to survive the dawn of Mars, when local temperatures rise to – 90 degrees Celsius fall.
Then the rotors were unlocked and Ingenuity was already turning its blades at a slower speed, showing that the mechanical part was working. The final test before flight is to spin the blades at an operating speed of 2,400 revolutions per minute. The first attempt had problems and resulted in the agency moving the flight date from Sunday (11) to the fourth (14).
The flight profile for that first take-off is very simple: Ingenuity climbs up to 3 meters, hovers for about 30 seconds, and then descends at the same point it took off. In addition to sensors for telemetry, there are two cameras on board that generate images during the flight.
From a distance, persistence should also record the attempt. And here comes another waiting period: the rover receives the data transmitted by the helicopter and sends it to one of the orbiters, which then fires the data packet back to Earth.
The entire process takes place automatically without the mission control intervening – not least because radio signals currently require 14 minutes to get from Earth to Mars, even with a direct communication link.
If Ingenuity survives the landing, it can try new flights. The plan is five in total, but it’s not impossible that he will do more if he can keep up. It is believed that the vehicle could help Perseverance plan its route towards the Jezero crater delta and take pictures from above. But that would be an unlikely bonus. The Rover team is certainly not counting on that.
However, success can lead to the fact that even more powerful aircraft are produced in future missions. It is not inconceivable that every new rover could have its own helicopter in a few years.
Fittingly, Ingenuity sent a small piece of cloth from the Wright brothers’ first airplane. In 1903 he flew four times, the first 36 meters, the last 255 meters. Nothing too impressive. But it was just the beginning. For planes on Mars, the story begins now.
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