Aerospace & Defence

Engineering and Ingenuity bring flight to Mars

6th May 2021
Alex Lynn

On February 18th, the Red Planet received its latest visitors in the form of the Perseverance rover, with the Ingenuity helicopter hitching a ride, and NASA has now announced that it is extending the drone's mission on Mars.

Upon launch, Ingenuity’s primary mission had been to complete the first powered flight on the planet, and with three fully successful flights under its belt, NASA has now decided to move from the demonstration phase, into an operational one. Instead of just proving that air travel is possible on Mars, Ingenuity will now fly with Perseverance and add a new aerial angle to the rover’s search for life on Mars.

Originally NASA only intended to execute five flights with Ingenuity before grounding the drone, but due to the mission’s success NASA has altered the flight plan. This next stage of Ingenuity’s quest will last for 30 Martian sols – or days – and the helicopter will fly approximately 1km ahead of Perseverance, scouting the terrain and studying areas the rover cannot reach.

Usually a drone is controlled by a remote of joystick, however, to tackle the distance between Earth and the helicopter, Ingenuity is equipped with smart technology, so that it can make decisions for itself, based on the mission the engineers at NASA have given it. Ingenuity uses smart technology to keep itself warm and remain safely on its flight path. As with the other Mars robots, Ingenuity uses solar panels to keep itself powered up. 

Bob Balaram, Ingenuity’s Chief Engineer, told the BBC: “It's been riding the winds, it's been taking off great, all the engineering systems, the solar panel, the battery, the radio, have all been working very well - everything has just been fantastic."

Perseverance and Ingenuity are exploring the Jezero Crater on Mars, a 49km crater thought to have once been a lake, due to minerals found in the clay. Because of the chances of water having once been present in the area, it is thought to be one of the most promising sites on the planet to find signs of past life.

Why does flight on Mars matter?

At first glance, it might be hard to think why a drone taking to the air on another planet matters – beyond being extremely cool. It matters not only as a feat of human engineering, but also because the possibility of aerial research on Mars opens up an entirely new dimension of exploration.

The Mars rovers have proven themselves to be reliable, plucky little robots who go far beyond their predicted life, but they are still limited by their wheels. There are some parts of Mars that are too difficult for a rover to try and reach - if a rover gets tipped over, there is no one on hand to get them back on their feet. Helicopter drones on Mars would be able to fly above this difficult terrain and send back images of thus-far unseen areas of the Red Planet.

Compared to Earth, Mars has an extremely hostile environment; the atmosphere is thin, the temperatures are glacial – dipping as low as -90oC - the terrain is rough, and there is no support on hand to help. Just to survive the first night on the frigid planet Ingenuity had to prove its robustness. The thin atmosphere – only one percent of the density of our own atmosphere - also means that Ingenuity needed to be light, and with larger, faster rotary blades than would be needed for a drone of it’s size on Earth.

However, Mars does have one benefit to offer Ingenuity. As the gravity is about one third of the pull on Earth, it means that the helicopter can lift slightly more mass on Mars than it would be able to here.

On NASA’s website, Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said: “The Ingenuity technology demonstration has been a resounding success. Since Ingenuity remains in excellent health, we plan to use it to benefit future aerial platforms while prioritising and moving forward with the Perseverance rover team’s near-term science goals.”

NASA is hoping that in the future helicopters on Mars can assist rovers, and even manned missions to the planet. See a video of Ingenuity in flight on Mars here!

A look back at the Mars rovers

The Mars rovers have been capturing our imagination since Sojourner was first launched on December 4th 1996. We have been sending things to Mars for decades before the first NASA rover touched down, such as orbiters and landers, however, the little guys with wheels and gutsy names have kept our interest like no others.

Sojourner

Sojourner will always have a place in history as the first wheeled robot to roam the Red Planet. It was on a Pathfinder mission and touched down on 4th July 1997 in the Ares Vallis region. It weighed 11.5kg, travelled at a lightning speed of 0.02mph, and was active for 83 sols.

By lasting for 83 sols, despite only being designed for seven, with scientists optimistic that a 30 sol extension might be possible, Sojourner started the proud tradition of NASA’s Mars rovers buckling down and chugging along on the Red Planet for far longer than expected.

The last signal from Sojourner was received on October 7th 1997, after travelling a mighty 100m (I would like to see you travel 100m on the Red Planet).

Spirit

Spirit launched from Earth on June 10th 2003, and landed on January 4th 2004. Spirit weighed 185kg, and ramped the speed up to a whopping 0.1mph. Spirit landed in the impact crater Gusev, and took its name from a NASA sponsored student essay competition, continuing the ‘spirit’ of exploration that the rovers inspire.

Spirit had an objective to search for and study a range of rocks and soils which could hold clues to the presence of water on Mars. All of Spirit’s objectives were geological in nature and helped scientists to understand the surface of Mars, and how it reached it’s current state.

Spirit had a planned 90 sol mission, and survived for 2,208 sols, having travelled 7.73km and continuing to transmit telemetry even after becoming mired in soft sand. NASA had successfully freed Spirit from previous ‘embedding events’ but Spirit couldn’t break free this time, and communication with Spirit was ended on 22nd March 2010.

Opportunity

The twin to Spirit in shape, size, weight and speed, Opportunity was launched on July 7th 2003, and landed on January 25th 2004, in Meridiani Planum, on the opposite side of the planet to Spirit. Opportunity – affectionately nicknamed ‘Oppy’ – had the same objectives as Spirit.

During it’s mission, Oppy found meteorites such as the ‘Heat Shield Rock’ in the Meridiani Planum, roved the Victoria Crater for two years, travelled to the Endeavour crater and helped to identity it as a possible landing site, and transmitted years of telemetry back to Earth.

Oppy had a planned 90 sol mission and stayed active for a staggering 5,111 sols, covering 45.16km.

Relying on solar panels for power, Oppy deployed a clever tactic for avoiding sand storms – dangerous weather for solar-reliant rovers - and went into hibernation when one hit, preserving power for as long as possible, in the hope that it would be able to charge again before running out of power entirely. This tactic worked and Oppy saw off many storms, until the 2018 planetary dust storm, when Oppy entered hibernation on 12th June 2018, and was unable to restart when the weather cleared, indicative of either covered solar panels, or electronics failure.

In honour of Oppy’s contribution to science, an asteroid was named after the rover, the asteroid now called the ‘39382 Opportunity’.

Curiosity

Curiosity was launched on 26th November 2011, landed on 6th August 2012 on the Aeolis Palus inside the Gale crater, and is still running today. Curiosity weighs 899kg, moves at 0.09mph, and is carrying out a mission to study the geology and climate of Mars.

Curiosity is exploring the Gale crater in particular, testing rock and environmental samples to discover if the crater has ever offered conditions that would be conducive to microbial life, or indicate that water had once been present. The rover is also studying the evolution of the Martian atmosphere, and the current state of surface radiation on Mars.

Like Spirit, Curiosity got its name from a student essay competition that attracted over 9,000 proposals, with 12 year old Clara Ma penning the winning entry.

As of May 5th 2021, Curiosity has been active for 3109 sols, far surpassing its two year mission, and shows no signs of slowing down. NASA has extended Curiosity’s mission length indefinitely.

Curiosity has also been known to take the occasional selfie, and sing itself happy birthday.

Perseverance

Perseverance – nicknamed ‘Percy’ – is the most recent rover to touch down on Mars. It was launched on 30th July 2020, and landed on 18th February 2021, weighs 1,025kg, and chugs along at the same speed as Curiosity.

Because of the unmitigated success of its predecessor, Percy is modelled on Curiosity, and is an upgraded version of the other rover.

Similar to the rovers before it, Perseverance has goals to identify Martian environments that might have once been able to support life as we know it, and search for signs that microbial life once existed on Mars through the study of geological samples. However, Perseverance also has two exciting new objectives: to assist with the first unmanned flight on Mars (Ingenuity), and to test the atmosphere for oxygen production, to help scientists prepare for the possibility of future manned missions.

Still going like Curiosity, Perseverance now has a new travel buddy with Ingenuity, and has been active for 74 sols as of May 5th 2021.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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