How Ingenuity’s helicopter flew the first time on another planet
The rotors begin to spin, increasing in speed. Then, you push the lift control. Your helicopter will rise, hover, and then move forward at your next command. It didn’t fly high enough. The drone will rise to the top of the obstacle as you quickly move the joystick. It’s finally in the air and moving fast above hills, dunes, and valleys.
Imagine that you’re flying your drone 180 million kilometers away. Imagine that it takes 20 minutes to send your command, and for the images you see on the planet to be 20 minutes old. If something goes wrong, you cannot correct or evade the situation. It would be too late if something went wrong. NASA engineers didn’t want to face this situation on the maiden flight of the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars on April 19; they did not. Software problems had already caused the flight to be postponed. The engineers needed to ensure that all commands for Ingenuity were sent in advance due to the time difference between Mars and Earth.
All of the planning and calculations were successful. A Nasa engineer informed mission control shortly after 12:00 BST that “all data are nominal”. It’s space-speak for “we are extremely happy, everything went well.” We saw the data, a rather unimpressive graph, a few minutes later. It was enough for engineers at mission control to cheer and clap.
then came the images, the first being a photo of Ingenuity’s own shadow hovering above the surface. We’ve seen shadows of spacecraft before. The video blew me away. The Perseverance Rover captured the entire flight of its traveling companion, from take-off to landing. This is a video of the first powered flight of a robot on another planet. It looked almost too clever. It was real. It was amazing.
The first flight to Mars wasn’t as exciting as one might have imagined. There was no soaring over the barren landscape, taking pictures of craters and dunes. Ingenuity soared about three meters above the ground before landing again. The plane was in the sky for around 40 seconds. These 40 seconds are of the same significance as theas’s first powered flight on Earth, which lasted just 12 seconds. This flight by The Wright brothers was about 40 meters forward, but it was also at the same height as Ingenuity.
What is the significance of Ingenuity’s maiden flight? It is an engineering and technology achievement. A lift is required for flight. This lift is provided by the weight of the aircraft in relation to the difference between the atmospheric pressure on its upper and lower surfaces. Rotating blades in a helicopter generate lift. The faster they spin, the greater the charge. With an air pressure of 1,000 millibars, a helicopter’s blades turn between 400 and 500 times per minute on Earth.
Mars’s lower gravity (about one-third of Earth’s) offset the effects of its much lower atmospheric pressure (6 millibars). Ingenuity’s blades still had to be rotated about 2400 times per hour to lift the two-kilogram craft. Even achieving a spin rate of this rapid for two blades measuring one meter in length was an important advance in propulsion.
This flight also serves as a preview of what is to come. NASA has scheduled a series of flights of increasing complexity over the next couple of weeks. As the helicopter moves, new hazards are revealed. Atmospheric pressure and wind speed will also be taken into consideration.
Ingenuity does not have the rear-rotor blades that are used in a traditional helicopter to “steer” it. Also, commands can’t be given in real time. Each flight will be just as exciting as the previous one and will provide new perspectives on the environment around Jezero Crater. These images, although limited, will help Perseverance build a better understanding of the surrounding area.
There are currently no helicopters on board either of the two upcoming missions to Mars planned by NASA or NASA.
The sample return mission is scheduled to launch in 2026 and will have a rover that will pick up the tubes with samples collected by Perseverance. Imagine the fetch rover being accompanied by a helicopter so that it could take the most efficient and safe route to reach the cache of tubes and then to the vehicle that will transport the samples from the surface of Mars into orbit. It may sound like science fiction, but this is becoming more and more possible.
It appears that Ingenuity brought on board a small canvas taken from the Wright Flyer airplane. This was a great symbol of success for this little spacecraft. It is unlikely that flights over the surface of Mars are as common as those across Earth, but they will occur. This first flight may not have been a small step, but it certainly was a rotor-blade rise into history.