NASA Mars Helicopter Pushes Limits To Complete Most Challenging Flight Yet

by Karan Kamble - Jul 7, 2021 01:15 PM +05:30 IST
NASA Mars Helicopter Pushes Limits To Complete Most Challenging Flight YetNASA Mars helicopter Ingenuity’s shadow captured with its navigation camera (Photo: NASA JPL)
  • NASA's Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, has aced its ninth and most challenging flight yet on the Red Planet.

    The aerial advantage offered by Ingenuity is not available to landers, rovers, or orbiters.

On 2 July, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced that they were "going big for flight nine" with their Mars helicopter.

Acknowledging that the chopper, called Ingenuity, had already exceeded expectations, the United States (US) space agency said that on flight nine, they were about to take things "to a new level with a high-speed flight across unfriendly terrain, which will take us far away from the rover".

The rover is Perseverance, which arrived at Jezero crater in Mars on 18 February this year to look for signs of ancient life and to collect rock and regolith (broken rock and soil) samples to bring back home. Ingenuity was Perseverance's co-passenger. The autonomous aircraft reached the surface of the Red Planet attached to the rover's belly.

Two days after NASA's status update on the big flight, Ingenuity went up for its ninth and most challenging flight yet, on American independence day, no less — and aced it.

"The rotorcraft completed its ninth and most challenging flight yet, flying for 166.4 seconds at a speed of 5 m/s," said a tweet by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which manages the Mars 2020 mission with the Perseverance rover.

NASA JPL built the Ingenuity Mars helicopter and is managing the technology demonstration.

Details about the flight are yet to arrive, but NASA JPL scientists had explained what to expect in their 2 July blog post.

"...we will now attempt to do something that only an aerial vehicle at Mars could accomplish – take a shortcut straight across a portion of the Séítah region and land on a plain to the south," Håvard Grip, chief pilot, and Bob Balaram, chief engineer for the Mars Helicopter Project, wrote in their blog.

They described Séítah as a "scientifically interesting region" and one that is "characterized by sandy ripples that could be very challenging terrain for wheeled vehicles like the rover".

Ingenuity's plan included taking colour pictures of the rocks and ripples as it flew over the area.

Its destination was a "patch of clear ground" about 50 metres in radius, but there was a possibility that the chopper would land in a more difficult area.

This flight carries great risk, but NASA JPL believes in the ability of Ingenuity. Besides, according to the blog, "A successful flight would be a powerful demonstration of the capability that an aerial vehicle (and only an aerial vehicle) can bring to bear in the context of Mars exploration – travelling quickly across otherwise untraversable terrain while scouting for interesting science targets".

Close-up images of a region inaccessible to the rover would be pretty sweet too!

According to the NASA JPL update on Twitter, the solar-powered rovercraft has pulled off the flight.

Eight Ingenuity flights have preceded this one, starting with possibly the most anxiety-provoking flight one.

The historic first flight was achieved on 19 April, demonstrating a simple but powerful idea — powered, controlled flight on a planet other than Earth is possible.

The flight lasted 39.1 seconds, during which time the craft rose to its prescribed maximum altitude of 3 metres (10 feet), remained in a stable hover for 30 seconds, and came back down. The Perseverance rover gave the NASA team a good view of the flight.

Over the next couple of flights, Ingenuity stretched itself to move more dynamically and go higher, faster, and farther.

Having achieved the goal of demonstrating flight successfully on Mars over the course of three experimental flights, a call was taken towards the end of April to push the rovercraft’s performance envelope further. NASA wanted to test the small rovercraft for its possible benefit in the exploration of Mars, as well as other planets, in the future.

After all, the aerial advantage offered by Ingenuity is not available to landers, rovers, or orbiters.

This led to a transition from technology demonstration to operations demonstration.

The risk level was raised too, with an in-flight anomaly on the sixth flight creating a scare and a software update becoming necessary for more reliable future flights. But there was always the promise of unlocking a new level in technology and operations demonstration with each successive flight.

Successes at every stage led to flight nine, described as the “most nerve-wracking flight” of Ingenuity since the crucial first one. The helicopter seems to have passed this test, too, flying to an altitude of 625 metres, although more updates from NASA JPL in the coming days will clarify the details.

Ingenuity is light, with a weight of 1.8 kg (less than 0.7 kg on Mars), and has rotors stretching across 1.2 metres and ready to spin at about 2,400 rpm. The blades are made of carbon fibre foam. A solar panel on board keeps the lithium-ion batteries charged.

The Mars helicopter is equipped with antennas, cameras, and sensors — the antennas help in communicating with the Earth via the rover, sensors help in tracking the speed, and cameras (one colour and one black-and-white) help with sight.

The craft is designed to cover a distance of 300 metres (just under 1,000 feet) and climb up to 5 metres (15 feet). And it can do so through a super-thin Martian atmosphere and on a planet where nights can be unforgiving. And all this without human control.

Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley said that flights would "continue for at least a few more months, with a cadence of a couple of flights a month".

If Ingenuity continues to accumulate successes, it can pave the way for other, more advanced robotic flying machines to be deployed on the Red Planet — even possibly to help out human explorers.

At the moment, the future looks bright for Ingenuity, and as a result, for more detailed investigations of Mars and other planets.

Also Read:

'I'm Safe On Mars' – NASA's Perseverance Rover Lands On Red Planet To Look For Signs Of Ancient Life

The Man Behind NASA’s Wright Brothers Moment On Mars Is IIT-Madras Alumnus Bob Balaram

Karan Kamble writes on science and technology. He occasionally wears the hat of a video anchor for Swarajya's online video programmes.

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