NASA’s new rover, Perseverance is almost to Mars! It carries with it a host of scientific instruments to collect tons of data in its search for signs of ancient life, and it won’t be traveling there alone. Along for the ride is a technology demonstrator called Ingenuity.
Ingenuity is also known as the Mars Helicopter. This small aircraft aims to perform the first powered test flight on another world. The plan is for Ingenuity to take off and hover a few feet in the air for around 20 to 30 seconds and then land. If successful, the team at NASA will attempt more test flights, each one traveling incrementally higher and farther. Due to the light delay between Earth and Mars (the time it takes to send a signal), the flights will all be completely autonomous with very little direction from people on Earth.
Why does the technology need to be proven? We have remotely piloted helicopters here on Earth.
The atmosphere of Mars is much different than that on Earth. The mean surface pressure is 0.60 kPa, just .6 percent of the 101.3kPa surface pressure on Earth. The surface pressure of Mars is about the same as the air pressure 35 kilometers above the surface of the Earth, many times the maximum altitude of any traditional helicopter. This is because helicopters rely on a certain atmospheric density to provide enough lift for powered flight. Gravity on Mars is much lower than Earths gravity but that isn’t enough to help the Mars Helicopter fly. Instead, its two, 4-foot, specially designed carbon fiber rotors will spin at up to 2,800 rpm to lift the small 1.8kg body of Ingenuity.
So why does this matter, and why is there a helicopter headed to Mars?
A rover is a great tool for exploration and they have provided and will continue to provide incredible data from Mars, but they have their limitations. Rovers cannot traverse the steep walls of a crater or a canyon and they may have difficulties driving across certain terrain. They are also relatively slow when driving across the surface. Mainly due to caution and to protect the vehicles from the rough surfaces, the maximum speed of Curiosity is well below 1 mile per hour. It is even less than a kilometer an hour. Perseverance uses the same body as Curiosity so it’s top speed will likely be comparable.
An aircraft doesn’t have these same limitations. It’s speed and ability to overfly rough terrain means it can travel much farther and gather data, and potentially samples, from places that would be impossible for a rover to reach. While Ingenuity is just a tech demo and wont be collecting much data about Mars, it will hopefully prove the viability of the technology, paving the way for larger and more capable helicopters to head to the Red Planet.
Ingenuity will travel to Mars attached to the underside of the Perseverance rover. Check out the video below to see how the Mars Helicopter will be deployed. If you want to learn more about its ride to the Red Planet check out the post Meet Perseverance.