Hopefully in the next few days NASA will be launching their new Mars rover, Perseverance, to the Jezero Crater on Mars, where, hopefully, it will find some signs of past (maybe even present?) microbial life. This in itself is wildly exciting, but Perseverance has a passenger that makes it all even more remarkable: a helicopter named Ingenuity.
Perseverance is similar to Curiosity, the last JPL-built rover sent to Mars back in 2011-2012, but has been improved and upgraded based on the experiences and knowledge learned from Curiosity, like having more robust wheels.
On Perseverance’s belly will hang Ingenuity, which will be the first rotorcraft ever to fly on another planet. Depending on how you count parachutes and rocket-assisted landing systems, you could argue it’s the first powered atmospheric aircraft of any kind to fly off Earth.
The challenges of building a rotorcraft to fly on Mars are non-trivial to say the least. There’s an advantage in that Mars only has 38 percent the gravity of Earth, but the atmosphere is only one percent as dense, so rotors have to be big and they have to spin fast, really fast. For comparison, a helicopter’s blades here on Earth generally spin between 400 and 500 rpm; Ingenuity’s nearly four-foot counter-rotating stacked rotors will spin between 2,000 and 3,000 RPM.
Here, NASA and JPL made a great video explaining the challenges with the team behind Ingenuity:
It’s going to be autonomous as well; JPL will tell the chopper where to go, but it will fly itself to get there. Interestingly, the electronic brains that power Ingenuity are anything but exotic—it runs Linux and is powered by the ARM-based Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, which is very likely in a smartphone within a few feet from you.
It’s incredibly light—only about four pounds—and uses a surprising amount of off-the-shelf hardware. It’s really a technology demonstrator, and while it’ll likely take some cool images of the surface to send back, it’s not really designed for science purposes.
The plan is to have Ingenuity make up to five separate flights, at altitudes between nine and 30 feet or so, and could potentially cover a distance of about 1000 feet per flight.
Based on JPL’s past record with their Martian exploration hardware, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find that the little spidery helicopter achieves a hell of a lot more.
Hopefully, successful tests of Ingenuity will lead to future designs for more off-Earth rotorcraft, which could dramatically expand the amount of exploration we can do on other planets and moons in the solar system.
Godspeed, little flying robot!