The Ingenuity helicopter has taken off and landed on the surface of Mars. It has been described as a “Wright brothers moment”. But what does it mean for the future of space exploration?
What is Ingenuity?
It is a small robotic helicopter that has been on the surface of Mars since 18 February, when it arrived with the NASA Perseverance rover. Weighing just under 1.8kg, Ingenuity is not much larger than a Chihuahua.
On Monday, Ingenuity took off from the surface of Mars, rose 3m above it, swivelled 96 degrees and hovered for almost 40 seconds before landing. It was the first powered flight ever to take place on a different planet.
How big of a challenge was it?
To make its flight, Ingenuity first had to pass several major tests. It had to survive the launch from Cape Canaveral, the 300 million mile cruise to Mars and the seven minutes of terror as it landed. It then had to detach from Perseverance and survive for over two months on the intensely cold planet, while recharging its battery autonomously.
The flight itself was also fraught with difficulty. Mars has a lower gravity than Earth and an extremely thin atmosphere. Researchers only had vague estimates about wind speeds. Plus, updates from the spacecraft take several minutes to reach mission control.
So, how did engineers manage it?
The helicopter is built with every challenge in mind.
Built-in solar panels allow it to recharge its battery when needed. Carbon fibre blades rotating at speeds of 2,400 rpm provide it with the thrust it needs to lift off in the carbon dioxide-heavy atmosphere. And lightweight insulation keeps the computer core safe from the extreme Martian weather.
As engineers on the ground could not control the helicopter live, they sent instructions hours in advance based on complex calculations. And news that the flight was successful only reached Earth several hours after Ingenuity had landed.
Sounds exciting, but what’s the point?
Ingenuity is what is known as a technology demonstration. Put simply, it is a test flight. The project’s main purpose is to test whether flight is possible – and to work out what engineering needs to be in place to make it work.
Although it is fitted with cameras, Ingenuity has no science instruments onboard. It will complete four further test flights this week, each building on the previous outing. As one NASA engineer explains: “What we’re talking about here is going higher, going further, going faster.”
How will this affect future Mars exploration?
Now that Ingenuity has proved flight is possible, there is a chance to work on more powerful vehicles. These could be used to carry out scouting missions, investigate remote areas and visit places impossible to reach on land. Michael Watkins, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory thinks it will have an enormous impact on future manned missions: “This is exactly the way we build the future.”
Larger spacecraft could also carry out more detailed missions. Chief Ingenuity engineer Bob Balaram estimates that a 25kg helicopter could carry up to 5kg of scientific instruments, making exploration easier.
Is it just on Mars?
Not at all! Successful flights on Mars open new avenues for all space exploration. Michael Watkins said: “What the Ingenuity team has done is give us the third dimension; they’ve freed us from the surface now forever in planetary exploration.”
The first time NASA hopes to test its new flight technology is with its Dragonfly. The spacecraft is an eight-rotor drone that will launch on a mission to Saturn’s moon Titan in 2027. This unique, organic world is a possible home for extra-terrestrial life. Dragonfly will explore organic dunes and impact craters, searching for ancient water and signs of life. And with the technology to fly, gathering evidence will be much easier.
- Is it irresponsible to explore space when we have problems on Earth that need fixing?
- You have designed a new flying machine that will transport people from building to building in a Mars colony. Plan a presentation to give at a NASA conference.
- The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is responsible for the US space programme. Its well has hundreds of unmanned missions, it has sent over 200 human crews into space.
- The rover’s mission is to search for signs of past life in a crater on Mars where ancient life is considered most likely.
- Cape Canaveral
- A coastal cape in Florida chosen for rocket launches to take advantage of the Earth’s rotation. Its proximity to the sea also makes it safer in the case of accidents.
- Seven minutes of terror
- The nickname given to the time it takes for a lander to enter Mars’s atmosphere, travel through it and land. It is terrifying because engineers on Earth have no access, control or radio signal.
- With the freedom to act independently – without outside input from humans.
- Revolutions per minute.
- Surface temperatures may reach a high of around 20C at noon on the equator – and lows of -153C at the poles.
- Jet Propulsion Laboratory
- A NASA field centre in California. Its primary function is the construction of robotic spacecraft, including Perseverance and Ingenuity.
- From outside the Earth. Extra-terrestrial life is life that may occur outside Earth and did not originate here.