This is how NASA plans to fly a helicopter on Mars

Jon Lawson

After NASA's Perseverance rover landed safely on Mars, the agency is now looking forward to its next challenge - flying a helicopter on the red planet. 

Ingenuity is now being charged by the rover. Like much of the 2kg craft, its 6 lithium ion batteries are off-the-shelf units. It remains attached to the rover while tests are completed to ensure the batteries, base station and heaters are all working as expected. When the controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California are happy, the chopper will detach itself and charge from its own solar panel. Then there will be a martian month (31 days) window of opportunity to see if it flies. NASA said if it succeeds in taking off and hovering during its first flight, over 90% of the project’s goals will have been achieved. If it lands successfully and remains operable, up to 4 more flights could be attempted, each one building on the success of the last.

The purpose of the Mars helicopter

NASA is calling Ingenuity a technology demonstrator. It’s not heavily instrumented like the Rover, its mission is to demonstrate rotorcraft flight in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars. In fact the atmospheric density is just 1% of that of earth. However, with one third the gravity, the agency is confident that a test flight will be possible. The rotors are larger and are designed to spin faster than if the craft was being used in our atmosphere. 

The team on earth won’t be able to pilot the craft as the delays in communication are too long, so it’s programmed to make some flight decisions itself. Flight data will be scrutinised later. 

Should the effort prove successful, the mission will act as a template for future trips and the plan is that one day astronauts would be able to call upon these mini choppers to move cargo and supplies around future extra-terrestrial bases. 


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