On February 18, NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on Mars with the first helicopter ever deployed on another planet: Ingenuity. Its 125 million mile journey began last July, and because Mars missions statistically tend to fail as often as they succeed, just getting there was really half the battle.
Almost immediately after celebrating the arrival of Perseverance on the red planet, NASA’s team got right back to work, preparing to conduct a wide variety of experiments meant to locate any potential signs of ancient life in the Martian soil. NASA’s previous rovers have all but confirmed that Mars was once warm and wet enough to support life as we know it here on Earth, making Perseverance’s hunt perhaps the most important scientific expedition in the history of mankind… that is, if it finds any evidence of life.
Perseverance is better equipped for that hunt than any previous rover. In fact, it’s the most advanced platform we’ve ever sent to any moon, planet, or asteroid throughout the history of mankind’s space exploration. But even if Perseverance fails in its efforts to find the remnants of life long past, there’s still another experiment on the rover that could have far-reaching implications for the exploration of Mars and beyond. That experiment is the Mars Helicopter Ingenuity.
Unlike most of the rest of the gear bolted to Perseverance, Ingenuity isn’t meant to support experimentation, or at least, not the sort of experiments we’ve come to expect from NASA’s rovers. Instead, the Mars helicopter is meant as a technology demonstrator. The phrase “tech demonstrator” is often used in the development of military platforms–particularly in aviation–but the premise has a universal purpose.
Technology demonstrators are meant to do exactly what they sound like: Demonstrate the feasibility (or lack thereof) of a new form of technology. For the F-117 Nighthawk, Lockheed’s Have Blue aircraft served as a tech demonstrator that proved the efficacy of stealth. Like Have Blue, Ingenuity’s task is simple: prove that helicopters really can work on Mars.
Rotorcraft like helicopters work in a decidedly different way than a traditional aircraft, and didn’t prove practical until September of 1939 when Igor Sikorsky revealed his VS-300 helicopter to the world. Using similar principles to the lift created by airplane wings, the propellor or propellors at the top of a helicopter produce lift without the need for forward-momentum or thrust. This gives helicopters a uniquely utilitarian skillset–like being able to take off without a runway, hover, or patrol an area at lower speeds than are possible in an airplane.
That’s why a helicopter seemed like the logical choice for the first aircraft ever to operate on another planet in our solar system. With no need for a long, straight runway to take off and land, a helicopter can take to the sky vertically from any flat surface, including one on Mars… But Ingenuity actually working isn’t a sure bet. The Martian atmosphere is around 1% as thick as the bubble of air we breathe here on our own tiny blue dot. With such a lack of atmospheric density, operating a helicopter on Mars is anything but certain.
This first helicopter on Mars weighs in at a tiny four pounds, is 19 inches tall, and runs on solar power. Its tiny payload includes computers to manage navigation and sensor readings, as well as two cameras (one color, and one black and white). Despite being quite small, Ingenuity does not operate by remote control–the lag between Earth and Mars is far too long to give the helicopter commands in real-time. Instead, NASA’s Mission Control will relay commands to Ingenuity that it will execute completely autonomously.
In order to get Ingenuity off the ground, its propeller measures in at about four feet and spins at a brisk 2,400 RPMs, which will hopefully be enough to tame Mars’ thin atmosphere for the baby chopper. Mars isn’t all bad for rotorcraft, though. Thanks to having only about a third of Earth’s gravity, Mars isn’t quite so clingy when it comes to leaving its surface. Success for the small helicopter would have far-reaching implications for the further exploration of Mars.
NASA has broken down Ingenuity’s goals into five simple steps aimed specifically at proving the viability of rotorcraft on future Mars missions. So far, they’ve already successfully completed step one. The steps are as follows:
- Surviving the cruise to Mars and landing on the Red Planet
- Safely deploying to the surface from the belly of the Perseverance rover
- Autonomously keeping warm through the intensely cold Martian nights
- Autonomously charging itself with its solar panel
- Successfully communicating to and from the helicopter via a subsystem known as the Mars Helicopter Base Station on the rover
Because of the minimal density of Mars’ atmosphere, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see astronaut door-gunners whipping around the Red Planet in a Black Hawk, but some of the things helicopter could do for a crewed mission to Mars is reconnaissance and carrying small payloads over difficult terrain. That means gaining access to parts of Mars that no rover could land on or drive to, at distances greater than astronauts would likely be able to cover on foot.
In the short term, Ingenuity has an opportunity to fly right into the history books as the first aircraft to ever operate on another planet (at least as far as we know). NASA hopes to make this historic flight within the first month of operating on Mars.