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A Special Place for Blog Lovers with a Touch of Science!

Blades of Glory - The First Helicopter on Mars

Image credit: Pixabay

Helicoptering the Red Planet

For thousands of years, mankind has been gazing at the sky, wondering and creating theories about what is there. In 1610, Galileo started the era of scientific exploration of space with the first telescopic observations of the night sky. 300 years later, on June 20, 1944, the V-2 rocket for the first time passed the Karman line (the border between earth atmosphere and space) and marked the first official space flight. On February 20, 1947, the first animals - fruit flies, were launched into space. And so, step by step, we reached the moment, when the first man-made object is going to take off, hover, and land back on the surface of Mars. Let's see what is all the fuss about...

Some Background

In July 1997 Sojourner, the first NASA Mars rover landed on the red planet and started exploring it. Until today there has been 5 rover mission, including the latest - Perseverance, who landed in February 2021. The rovers have an important role in studying the planet, as they are able to wheel around and collect and analyze samples and take pictures of different places. There is one moment, though, that makes their use very limited. As they need to be careful not to tumble over or collide with a rock, they need to move very slow. Their top speed so far has been 0,16km/h (average human walking speed is about 5km/h or about 30 times faster). This problem would be solved if the rovers could fly over the harsh terrain. While this seems like a simple task here on Earth, powered flight on Mars is a bit more complicated. Even though the gravity there is much weaker than here, the atmosphere is much thinner, and controlled flight requires much more input. Ingenuity is about to prove, that it is possible, though.

Who is Ingenuity?

Ingenuity is a small robotic helicopter. It was designed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA. The name was given by Vaneeza Ruppani, an 11th-grader who participated in the NASA "Name the Rover" contest. It has two 1.2m contra-rotating coaxial rotors. Much bigger than usual for its size, because of the atmosphere density. Its body is 13.6 cm × 19.5 cm × 16.3 cm and the Landing legs - 0.384 m. It's powered by six 2Ah Li-Ion batteries, which can be recharged by the attached solar panels. It uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor. It also carries a high-resolution downward-looking camera for navigational and scientific purposes.

Image credit: Wikipedia

The Mission

Ingenuity was carried by in a protective case below the bottom part of Perseverance. After it was deployed on April 3, and the rover pulled away from the buffer flight zone, the helicopter carried a low-speed rotor spin test on April 8. A high-speed test failed on April 9 due to a watchdog timer that expired when the helicopter was shifting its computer from pre-flight to flight mode. This caused a delay in the first actual flight, which was scheduled for April 11. After a successful second test on April 16, the first flight was conducted on April 19. In about 60 seconds it raised to around 3m, hovered for a while, and landed back. This was the first official flight of a powered aircraft on another planet.

NASA plans up to 4 more flights in the next 30 days. The second flight will too test the basic abilities of the helicopter. A 50-meter journey and then a return is planned for the third flight. The last two, well NASA wants to push the limits with them but doesn't want to speculate how much. Ingenuity will open the doors for future missions, which will be able to travel further and to change positions quickly. This will allow the scientists to gather much more valuable information and will probably take us one step closer to inhabiting Mars.

Oh, and after Apollo 11, Ingenuity is the second aircraft launched in space, that holds inside a small piece of the wing of the Wright brother's plane. Hopefully a sign, that humanity is ready for the next step.

Image credit: Pixabay
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