Test & Measurement

Two planets become testing ground for next-gen Mars helicopter

27th November 2023
Paige West

In a groundbreaking development, two planets, Earth, and Mars, have become testing grounds for the future of aircraft designs.

The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California recently witnessed the trial of a new rotor, poised to revolutionise next-generation Mars helicopters.

Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity's Project Manager and Manager for the Mars Sample Recovery Helicopters, expressed: "Our next-generation Mars helicopter testing has literally had the best of both worlds." Tzanetos emphasised the unique advantages of testing on Earth, where instrumentation and immediacy prevail, juxtaposed with the real off-world conditions of Mars – characterised by a whisper-thin atmosphere and significantly lower gravity.

The focal point of this Earthly experimentation is the testing of next-generation carbon fibre rotor blades, surpassing Ingenuity's specifications. These blades, longer by almost 4in (over 10cm) and boasting increased strength, present the potential for larger and more capable Mars helicopters. However, the challenge lies in managing vibration-induced turbulence as the blades approach supersonic speeds.

Engineers at JPL utilised a space simulator, measuring 25 feet wide and 85 feet tall (8 x 26m), to replicate Martian conditions. Over three weeks in September, sensors, meters, and cameras meticulously monitored the blades as they underwent successive runs at ever-higher speeds and greater pitch angles. Tyler Del Sesto, Sample Recovery Helicopter Deputy Test Conductor at JPL, shared: "These more efficient blades are now more than a hypothetical exercise. They are ready to fly."

Simultaneously, 100 million miles away on Mars, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was defying expectations. Originally planned for a maximum of five flights, Ingenuity has surpassed its 30-day mission by 32 times, completing 66 flights.

Travis Brown, Ingenuity’s Chief Engineer at JPL, highlighted the helicopter's achievements over the past nine months, including doubling the maximum airspeed and altitude, increasing rates of acceleration, and refining landing techniques. These advancements provide crucial data for designing future Mars helicopters.

Ingenuity's flights typically last two to three minutes due to energy and motor-temperature constraints. To cover more ground, the team commands higher altitudes rather than increased speed, preventing confusion for the onboard navigation system. Flight 61 established a new altitude record of 78.7 feet (24m), while Flight 62 set a speed record of 22.3mph (10 meters per second) and scouted a location for the Perseverance rover’s science team.

The team also experimented with landing speeds, demonstrating on Flights 57, 58, and 59 that Ingenuity could land at speeds 25% slower than originally designed. Further high-speed flights are anticipated in December to fine-tune aero-mechanical models.

Ingenuity, initially a technology demonstration, has evolved into a vital asset for Mars exploration. Developed by JPL with support from NASA’s Ames Research Centre, NASA’s Langley Research Centre, AeroVironment Inc., Qualcomm, SolAero, and Lockheed Space, Ingenuity continues to redefine the possibilities of Martian flight.

Dave Lavery, Program Executive for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at NASA Headquarters, anticipates continued progress in Martian flight technology, emphasising the need for meticulous testing when operating far from any repair facilities.

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