6 Things to Know About NASA’s Mars Helicopter on Its Way to Mars

From NASA

Jan. 21, 2021

In this illustration, NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter stands on the Red Planet's surface
In this illustration, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter stands on the Red Planet’s surface as NASA’s Perseverance rover (partially visible on the left) rolls away.Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ingenuity, a technology experiment, is preparing to attempt the first powered, controlled flight on the Red Planet.

When NASA’s Perseverance rover lands on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021, it will be carrying a small but mighty passenger: Ingenuity, the Mars Helicopter.

The helicopter, which weighs about 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms) on Earth and has a fuselage about the size of a tissue box, started out six years ago as an implausible prospect. Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California knew it was theoretically possible to fly in Mars’ thin atmosphere, but no one was sure whether they could build a vehicle powerful enough to fly, communicate, and survive autonomously with the extreme restrictions on its mass.

Then the team had to prove in Earthbound tests that it could fly in a Mars-like environment. Now that they’ve checked off those objectives, the team is preparing to test Ingenuity in the actual environment of Mars.

“Our Mars Helicopter team has been doing things that have never been done before – that no one at the outset could be sure could even be done,” said MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity project manager at JPL “We faced many challenges along the way that could have stopped us in our tracks. We are thrilled that we are now so close to demonstrating – on Mars – what Ingenuity can really do.”

Ingenuity survived the intense vibrations of launch on July 30, 2020, and has passed its health checks as it waits to plunge with Perseverance through the Martian atmosphere. But the helicopter won’t attempt its first flight for more than a month after landing: Engineers for the rover and helicopter need time to make sure both robots are ready.

Here are the key things to know about Ingenuity as the anticipation builds:

1. Ingenuity is an experimental flight test.

The Mars Helicopter is what is known as a technology demonstration – a narrowly focused project that seeks to test a new capability for the first time. Previous groundbreaking technology demonstrations include the first Mars rover, Sojourner, and the Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats that flew by Mars.

The helicopter doesn’t carry science instruments and isn’t part of Perseverance’s science mission. Ingenuity’s objective is an engineering one: to demonstrate rotorcraft flight in Mars’ the extremely thin atmosphere, which has just around 1% of the density of our atmosphere on Earth.

Ingenuity will attempt up to five test flights within a 30-Martian-day (31-Earth-day) demonstration window. Its pioneering aspirations are similar to those of the Wright brothers’ Flyer, which achieved the first powered, controlled flight on Earth.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter will make history’s first attempt at powered flight on another planet next spring. It is riding with the agency’s next mission to Mars (the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover) as it launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station later this summer. Perseverance, with Ingenuity attached to its belly, will land on Mars February 18, 2021.Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

2. Mars won’t make it easy for Ingenuity to attempt the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. 

Because the Mars atmosphere is so thin, Ingenuity is designed to be light, with rotor blades that are much larger and spin much faster than what would be required for a helicopter of Ingenuity’s mass on Earth.

The Red Planet also has beyond bone-chilling temperatures, with nights as cold as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius) at Jezero Crater, the rover and helicopter’s landing site. These temperatures will push the original design limits of the off-the-shelf parts used in Ingenuity. Tests on Earth at the predicted temperatures indicate Ingenuity’s parts should work as designed, but the team is looking forward to the real test on Mars.

“Mars isn’t exactly pulling out the welcome mat,” said Tim Canham, Ingenuity’s operations lead at JPL. “One of the first things Ingenuity has to do when it gets to Mars is just survive its first night.”

3. Ingenuity relies on the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission for safe passage to Mars and for operations on the Red Planet’s surface.

Ingenuity is nestled sideways under the belly of the Perseverance rover with a cover to protect it from debris kicked up during landing. Both the rover and the helicopter are safely ensconced inside a clamshell-like spacecraft entry capsule during the 293-million-mile (471-million-kilometer) journey to Mars. The power system on the Mars 2020 spacecraft periodically charges Ingenuity’s batteries on the way there.

To reach the Martian surface, Ingenuity rides along with Perseverance as it lands. The rover’s entry, descent, and landing system features a supersonic parachute, new “brains” for avoiding hazards autonomously, and components for the sky crane maneuver, which lowers the rover onto Mars from a descent vehicle. Only about 50% of the attempts to land on Mars, by any space agency, have been successful. 

Once a suitable site to deploy the helicopter is found, the rover’s Mars Helicopter Delivery System will shed the landing cover, rotate the helicopter to a legs-down configuration, and gently drop Ingenuity on the surface in the first few months after landing. Throughout the helicopter’s commissioning and flight test campaign, the rover will assist with the communications back-and-forth from Earth. The rover team also plans to collect images of Ingenuity.

4. Ingenuity is smart for a small robot.

Delays are an inherent part of communicating with spacecraft across interplanetary distances, which means Ingenuity’s flight controllers at JPL won’t be able to control the helicopter with a joystick. In fact, they won’t be able to look at engineering data or images from each flight until well after the flight takes place.  

So Ingenuity will make some of its own decisions based on parameters set by its engineers on Earth. The helicopter has a kind of programmable thermostat, for instance, that will keep it warm on Mars. During flight, Ingenuity will analyze sensor data and images of the terrain to ensure it stays on the flight path designed by project engineers.  

5. The Ingenuity team counts success one step at a time. 

Given Ingenuity’s experimental nature, the team has a long list of milestones the helicopter must reach before it can take off and land in the spring of 2021. The team will celebrate each milestone: 

  • Surviving the cruise to Mars and landing on the Red Planet
  • Safely deploying to the surface from Perseverance’s belly
  • Autonomously keeping warm through the intensely cold Martian nights
  • Autonomously charging itself with the solar panel atop its rotors
  • Successfully communicating to and from the helicopter via a subsystem known as the Mars Helicopter Base Station on the rover

If the first experimental flight test on another planet succeeds, the Ingenuity team will attempt more test flights. 

NASA’s Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity, is set to arrive at the Red Planet on Feb. 18, 2021. Its mission: to demonstrate the first powered flight on another world.

6. If Ingenuity succeeds, future Mars exploration could include an ambitious aerial dimension.

Ingenuity is intended to demonstrate technologies and first-of-its-kind operations needed for flying in the Martian atmosphere. If successful, these technologies and the experience with flying a helicopter on another planet could enable other advanced robotic flying vehicles that might be part of future robotic and human missions to Mars. Possible uses of a future helicopter on Mars include offering a unique viewpoint not provided by current orbiters high overhead or by rovers and landers on the ground; high-definition images and reconnaissance for robots or humans; and access to terrain that is difficult for rovers to reach. A future helicopter could even help carry light but vital payloads from one site to another.

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stinkerp
January 23, 2021 3:07 am

This is really exciting. My daughter worked on testing the rotor wing dynamics as an aeronautical engineering intern. I went to visit her at NASA Ames and got the friends-and-family tour and met the team of interns. They didn’t know at the time if it would be included in the Mars Perseverance payload. She gave me a Mars Helicopter team shirt and I got her one that advised her to

Always be yourself. Unless you can be an astronaut. Then always be an astronaut.

Scissor
Reply to  stinkerp
January 23, 2021 5:56 am

That’s cool!

Writing Observer
Reply to  stinkerp
January 23, 2021 8:37 am

Awesome! You must be so proud of this young lady that you raised!

I hope that she has a backup plan, though, since the NASA budget is certain to be gutted. Any remainder will undoubtedly be redirected to “higher priorities” such as Muslim outreach.

Perhaps she should be looking into learning Mandarin?

January 23, 2021 4:14 am

“NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter will make history’s first attempt at powered flight on another planet next spring.”

History’s first attempt?? Surely it’s man’s first attempt as in ‘human’. Nothing sexist, just proper English! It’s sad just how woke and PC NASA has become. Only going to get worse under Biden – Harris I fear.

Anyway, I hope they managed to sneak in a lightweight camera in the 1.8kg helicopter…so much more interesting to see where it has been. However I guess that requires a transmitter, aerial, power source, etc. and the weight adds up.

John Tillman
Reply to  Alastair Brickell
January 23, 2021 4:38 am

They’ll probably recreate its flights with CGI, if it flies.

Doug Huffman
Reply to  John Tillman
January 23, 2021 5:42 am

Uh oh. Your dialectic suggests that the flight may be created with CGI if it doesn’t fly.

John Tillman
Reply to  Doug Huffman
January 23, 2021 6:05 am

That occurred to me, but NASA generally admits failures.

Writing Observer
Reply to  John Tillman
January 23, 2021 8:38 am

No failures are allowed in the new regime.

Right-Handed Shark
Reply to  John Tillman
January 23, 2021 3:54 pm

True. Gavin Schmidt was admitted.

MarkW
Reply to  Alastair Brickell
January 23, 2021 8:17 am

Since the helicopter is autonomous, the existence of a camera on it is a given.

John Tillman
Reply to  MarkW
January 23, 2021 11:39 am

Hope the sensors and cameras work:
comment image

Its flights are programmed.

yirgach
Reply to  John Tillman
January 23, 2021 1:52 pm

I’m finding that most of the avialble online information is geared towards high school students. Which is OK, but after the fluff, I can’t find much technical information about the mission. Mebbe I didn’t poke hard enuf?

Reply to  yirgach
January 23, 2021 2:10 pm

There’s a fair bit of detail about Perseverance here:

Scientific instruments…
https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/mission/science/

Mastcam-Z has powerful cameras that can zoom in, focus, and take color 3-D images and video at high speed to allow detailed examination of distant objects.

MEDA, the Mars environmental dynamics analyzer, is a weather station that measures wind speed and direction, temperature and humidity, and the size and amount of dust particles in the Martian atmosphere.

MOXIE, the Mars oxygen in-situ resource utilization experiment, will demonstrate technology to produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere for propellant and for breathing air for future human explorers.

PIXL, the planetary instrument for X-ray lithochemistry, is an X-ray spectrometer used to identify chemical composition at a tiny scale. This will allow scientists to look for organic chemicals of possible past microbial life on Mars.

RIMFAX, the radar imager for Mars’ subsurface experiment, is a ground-penetrating radar system that will probe the geology below the rover to a depth of ten meters. RIMFAX will be used to detect ice, water and salty brines.

SHERLOC, the instrument for scanning habitable environments with Raman spectroscopy and luminescence for organics and chemicals, uses spectrometers, a laser and a camera to search for organic chemicals and minerals that may be signs of past microbial life from a wet environment.

SuperCam will examine rocks and soils with a camera, laser and spectrometers to find organic chemicals from possible past life on Mars. It can focus on targets as small as a sand grain from a distance up to seven meters.

Ingenuity UAV helicopter: In addition to this sophisticated instrument suite, Perseverance carries the small UAV helicopter, named Ingenuity, attached to the rover’s belly. It will be deployed for several flights up to 10 meters high and ranging up to 300 meters away from the rover to scout for science targets and driving routes.

https://explorer.aapg.org/story/articleid/58672/perseverance-rover-cruising-to-the-red-planet?utm_medium=website&utm_source=1

Jezero Crater…
https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/mission/science/landing-site/

yirgach
Reply to  David Middleton
January 24, 2021 6:02 am

Thank you David, there IS some real information out there…

John Tillman
January 23, 2021 4:30 am

On Earth, the manned helicopter altitude record is 42,500 feet, at which elevation air pressure is still much higher than on the Martian surface. Hard to say how high a light, robotic helicopter could reach in our atmosphere.

Air pressure at 50,000 feet here is 1.61 psi. Average surface psi on Mars is 0.088 psi, vs. 14.7 at MSL on Earth.

Record height for an electrically powered aircraft is almost 97,000 feet, set by NASA Helios.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/AeroVironment_Helios_Prototype

Highest for an oxygen-breathing aircraft was recorded in 1977 by a MiG-25 at 123,520 feet.

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  John Tillman
January 23, 2021 6:15 am

There is a video on the JPL website of the Ingenuity development-testing in a large chamber where they suck the air down to Mars level. The contra-rotating rotors spin really fast in that low density CO2 atmosphere.

John Tillman
Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
January 23, 2021 6:43 am

Thanks. Will check it out.

CO2 at least is more massive than N2.

LdB
Reply to  John Tillman
January 23, 2021 7:06 am

Helicopters have hover restrictions between 6-14,000 feet to go higher they must have forward speed to achieve lift. You need special training to fly at those heights. The highest record for a plane IMO is Virgin Galatic (VSS Unity) at 84.6km. The issue will come down to the definition of aircraft and who defines that.

Michael S. Kelly
Reply to  John Tillman
January 23, 2021 11:00 am

Mars’ surface gravity is 0.38 that of Earth, so the 4 pound vehicle requires only 1.52 pounds thrust to hover. It makes things slightly easier.

Joel O'Bryan
Reply to  Michael S. Kelly
January 23, 2021 11:40 am

To simulate that the JPL Ingenuity engineering team used a feedback tension tether to lift 63% of the vehicle’s weight as it flew around inside the chamber. Computer models may work to test ideas, but ultimately they have to be tested and validated in a real setting. Climate modelers skipped that part of engineering education apparently.

Michael S. Kelly
Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
January 23, 2021 9:12 pm

Agreed. However, NASA has exhibited some guts in the recent past. The sky crane landing system for the Mars Science Lab had never been tested as a system. It couldn’t be in terms of actual landing dynamics, but I spoke with the Chief Engineer of the project, and he said that they had not even tested the entire propulsion system as a system! Its first trial was landing the MSL.

I also know some of the JPL people who worked on MSL, and learned that it had been launched without a complete mission software suite. During its flight to Mars, it was constantly having software uploaded, then test run to validate it. Evidently, it was getting pretty tight toward the entry event, but they managed to pull off a perfect entry and landing.

This launch-then-load software approach has evolved since Galileo, when a stuck antenna severely limited the bandwidth between Earth and the Jupiter probe. Entirely new data compression algorithms were developed, then uploaded to Galileo’s relatively primitive computer system. But it worked, and rescued what would have been a completely failed, multi-billion dollar planetary science mission.

John Tillman
January 23, 2021 6:52 am

Getting Mars’ atmosphere to the 10.1 psi pressure of Earth’s at 10,000 feet, ie breathable, especially if with say, 25% O2, rather than 21%, would require massive quantities of N2. The oxygen is available from CO2 and water ice, but whence the nitrogen?

John Tillman
Reply to  John Tillman
January 23, 2021 7:02 am

N exists in Martian soil, but more would be needed.

https://newatlas.com/nitrates-nitrogen-mars-curiosity-nasa/36700/

Maybe by collecting asteroids. And while we’re at it, moving Ceres to form a major moon for Mars. It might restart the planet’s dead magnetic field, assuming it ever had one. We’ll learn more about Mars’ moribund core in this decade.

Terraforming Mars would not be easy. An artificial magnetosphere is also a possibility.

Joel O'Bryan
Reply to  John Tillman
January 23, 2021 11:45 am

Mars’ core is probably near fully crystallize and little of the heat flow thats still drives Earth’s dynamo, tectonics and hot mantle plumes convecting off the interface. Size matters. Earth and Venus probably got a lot more of the heavier stuff like uranium than Mars, stuff that could have powered nuclear fission reactions in the first billion or so years.

John Tillman
Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
January 23, 2021 1:19 pm

Size also matter simply in cooling off much more quickly.

There may indeed be no dead dynamo to be revived.

Interested Observer
Reply to  John Tillman
January 23, 2021 6:49 pm

“… collecting asteroids…moving Ceres to form a major moon for Mars…restart the planet’s dead magnetic field…”

“Terraforming Mars would not be easy.”

Biggest understatement in the history of understatements?

These are all ideas well beyond our capabilities for the next few centuries, possibly millennia.

Last edited 1 month ago by Interested Observer
John Tillman
Reply to  Interested Observer
January 24, 2021 2:59 pm

Not beyond even our present capabilities. The issue is cost.

Most of the mass of the main asteroid belt is in its largest objects. Moving them is feasible with present tech, but what would justify the cost?

Burl Henry
January 23, 2021 7:02 am

The Valles Mariness is up to 7 km deep, the helicopter should have no problem in flying in the higher air pressure down there. Probably a much more interesting area, since
liquid water could have persisted much longer in the canyon depths.than on the surface.

PaulH
January 23, 2021 7:24 am

We’re sending buzzing drones to Mars? If that doesn’t infuriate the Martians, nothing will. 🤣

Joel O'Bryan
Reply to  PaulH
January 23, 2021 11:50 am

“We come in peace”… (go to 1:24 mark)

Javert Chip
Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
January 25, 2021 8:01 pm

NOW THAT’S FUNNY!

oeman 50
January 23, 2021 8:58 am

This reminds me of the pesky little drones on Battle Bots It needs a flame thrower!

Richard Page
January 23, 2021 9:20 am

Good luck to it – it’s first obstacle will be to land safely – Mars has been a problem to land on in the past.

Reply to  Richard Page
January 23, 2021 11:20 am

NASA seems to have a handle on this now. Perseverance will use a similar Sky Crane landing system as Curiosity.

Reply to  David Middleton
January 23, 2021 11:29 am

That said, I’m sure a lot of NASA/JPL people will be on pins & needles until Perseverance is safely on the ground and fully operational.

Joel O'Bryan
Reply to  David Middleton
January 23, 2021 11:52 am

I’m thinking the huge beach ball method and bouncing a plutonium-filled RTG on a rover probably didn’t seem like a good idea.

Richard Page
Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
January 23, 2021 12:17 pm

It’s definitely better to do it on a planet other than your own but yes it does have rather severe drawbacks! Good to see that was an interim step in the development of a reliable landing system.

Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
January 23, 2021 12:19 pm

Curiosity and Perseverance were also too big for “beach ball” landings.

The Sky Crane is very cool.

https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/msl/multimedia/gallery/pia14839.html

ATheoK
January 23, 2021 5:22 pm

When NASA’s Perseverance rover lands on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021, it will be carrying a small but mighty passenger: Ingenuity, the Mars Helicopter.”

It is my understanding that helicopters have very short lives flying in dust storms?

Or does the Mars rover have replacement blades and turbos?

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