NASA’s Mars Helicopter Ingenuity moves into new demo phase

By Ashika Rajan, Trainee Reporter
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NASA's Mars Helicopter Ingenuity
Representational Image

US space entity NASA’s (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) tiny Mars robot helicopter Ingenuity is ready for graduation after beating all standards with its initial four test flights, a first by an aircraft over the surface of another planet.

NASA announced that Ingenuity is transitioning from a proof-of-concept, technology demonstration mode to a more ambitious mission assessing how aerial scouting and other functions could aid future scientific exploration of Red Planet.

During a briefing from Ingenuity’s mission control center at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles, where the twin-rotor aircraft was designed and constructed, the 30-day expected project extension was outlined.

Data from Ingenuity revealed that it traveled a round-trip distance of 872 feet (266 meters) at a speed of nearly 8 miles per hour, about the length of three American football fields (3.5 meters per second).

The helicopter flew at a height of around 16 feet (5 meters), which was considered suitable for ground surveillance work.

Ingenuity’s first 39-second flight on Mars on April 19 climbed just 10 feet (3 meters) in altitude, hovered briefly, and then descended straight back down for landing.

Though modest in terms of numbers, NASA compared the achievement to the groundbreaking first controlled flight of the Wright Brothers’ motor-driven airplane near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903.

The challenge for NASA was to power an aircraft in the ultra-thin air of Mars, whose atmosphere is only 1 percent as thick as Earth’s, making aerodynamic lift particularly difficult. Engineers compensated by equipping Ingenuity with rotor blades that are far larger and spin far faster than would be needed on Earth.

The miniature helicopter was strapped to the belly of the NASA science rover Perseverance, a six-wheeled astrobiology lab that landed on Mars on Feb. 18 after a nearly seven-month journey through space in a large basin called Jezero Crater.

Ms. MiMi Aung, the project manager for Ingenuity at JPL stated that except for a computer software glitch that twice caused Ingenuity flights to be postponed, the rotorcraft has performed flawlessly, achieving all technical objectives in its first three flights on Mars.

Ingenuity took 60 black-and-white photographs and some color pictures of the Martian surface while buzzing over the planet’s reddish-orange landscape on its most recent mission.

The images will be transformed into three-dimensional digital elevation maps that will be used to choose a new takeoff and landing zone for future flights.

Similar tracking operations may be used to assist mission managers in conducting low-altitude science observations of sites that are difficult to access by the rover, as well as scouting for preferred rover routes to different surface destinations.

Ms. Aung said that as engineers continue to push the helicopter beyond its design limits, the next flight, No. 5, would take Ingenuity on a one-way trip to a new “air field” in two or three weeks.

Related: Historic; NASA’s Perseverance Rover creates Oxygen on Mars