NASA’s ‘Ingenuity’ Will Land On Mars In February: What Will This Helicopter Drone Do?

On July 30 last year, a spacecraft under NASA’s ‘Mars Exploration Program’ started its journey from Earth to Mars. Through this rover mission named ‘Mars 2020’, expeditions to Mars will be conducted.

The spacecraft is accompanied by a rover named ‘Perseverance’ and a helicopter drone named ‘Ingenuity’. Next month, i.e. on February 18, the spacecraft will land in the ‘Zero Crater’ region of Mars.

A rover is a wheeled device designed to conduct missions on the surface of various planets or satellites. A rover device landed on the surface of Mars for the first time in 1997. Since then, rovers have been sent on several missions to Mars.

However, NASA has sent a helicopter to Mars for the first time. Weighing 4 pounds or 1.8 kilograms, this helicopter is about the size of a tissue box. About 6 years ago, engineers started working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California to develop this helicopter.

At first it seemed impossible for many to build such a helicopter. However, proving their doubts wrong, it has been possible to make this helicopter suitable for traveling on Mars.

Engineers and scientists knew early on, at least on paper, that it was possible to fly a helicopter through the thin Martian atmosphere. However, they doubted whether it would be possible to build a vehicle that could survive and communicate with the hostile environment of the planet.

So once built, the ‘Ingenuity’ helicopter has been tested in a number of ways by artificially creating a Martian environment on Earth. After passing those tests, the helicopter was basically sent into operation.

Now scientists are waiting to know whether the helicopter works properly after landing on Mars.

Mimi Ong, project manager of the ‘Ingenuity’ helicopter working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, shared her experience. According to him, “To build a helicopter suitable for navigation on Mars, we have to do things that no one has done before. While building the vehicle we faced challenges that could have stopped our work. But what Ingenuity can actually do in the chest of Mars, it will be known very soon. And we are all looking forward to it.”

The spacecraft carrying the helicopter and rover will touch down on Mars next month, but scientists will wait about a month after landing and before flying the helicopter off the planet’s surface.

Let’s know 6 more facts about this historic Ingenuity helicopter.

1. Ingenuity is primarily going to conduct an experimental test flight to Mars

The helicopter is not carrying any research equipment. Ingenuity will also not help the Perseverance rover on its way to Mars. Ingenuity has been attached to the expedition mainly to test the possibility of flying to Mars experimentally.

Mars’ atmosphere is only 1 percent denser than Earth’s. The helicopter is being sent to prove that flight is possible even in this extremely hostile environment of Mars. Ingenuity will make a total of 5 test flights over a period of 30 days for Mars and 31 days for Earth.

2. Flying in the harsh environment of Mars will not be easy for Ingenuity

So far, only 50% of attempts to land on Mars have been successful. In other words, there is some uncertainty about this mission of NASA.

Because the density of the Martian atmosphere is extremely low, the Ingenuity uses very light equipment. The rotor blades are made much wider than would be necessary for a device as massive as the Ingenuity to move around on Earth. This rotor blade rotation speed is also much higher than normal.

Again, the temperature on Mars is also very cold. The region where the spacecraft will land on the Mars 2020 mission can drop to minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit or minus 90 degrees Celsius at night. This extremely cold environment can also affect the Ingenuity’s internal components.

3. Ingenuity will rely heavily on the Perseverance rover to land and operate on Mars.

The Ingenuity helicopter is mounted horizontally inside the Perseverance rover. A cover is also provided around the copter to protect it from dust during landing.

The distance from Earth to Mars is about 293 million miles or 471 million kilometers. The rover and the helicopter, both vehicles, are placed inside a hard capsule to avoid damage during the long distance travel. The Ingenuity helicopter will also be regularly charged from the power system of the ‘Mars 2020’ spacecraft during the journey.

4. Ingenuity is smart enough for a small robot

One of the problems in communicating with a spacecraft on a distant planet or satellite is delay. That is, Ingenuity’s controllers on Earth cannot control the helicopter very easily. Instead, it will be possible to see the data and images sent from the helicopter shortly after the flight from the Martian surface.

That is, Ingenuity will be able to make flight decisions automatically. But even in that case, the helicopter will have to make a decision according to the conditions fixed by NASA engineers.

5. The team managing Ingenuity will consider every small step as a success

Since it will be conducted experimentally, every small step of Ingenuity will be considered a success. According to that, the milestones that the helicopter is going to touch before taking off from the surface of Mars include:

  • • Journey to Mars and survive the landing on the planet
  • • Landing safely on the surface of Mars from inside the Perseverance rover
  • • Being able to keep the machinery inside Ingenuity warm even during the bitterly cold Martian nights
  • • Successfully maintaining communication with the ‘Mars Helicopter Base Station’ on the rover that is automatically charged by solar panels on top of the rotor blades.

6. If Ingenuity is successful, more such devices will be sent to Mars in the future

Ingenuity is on its way to Mars as the first spacecraft capable of flying to an alien surface. As a result, many technologies have been used for the first time in the creation of the helicopter drone. If successful, the technology used in Ingenuity will be applied on a larger scale in the future.

In the future, vehicles like Ingenuity could be sent to carry various equipment from one place to another on the Martian surface or to capture images from above. Even the technology used by Ingenuity could help send humans to Mars.

Image courtesy: NASA

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