How NASA’s Mars Helicopter (Ingenuity) Will Fly in the Planet’s Thin Atmosphere
NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover finally touched down on the red planet today, with it having already sent back its first photos from the surface. While the Perseverance isn’t the only remotely operated vehicle active on Mars, with 2011’s Curiosity rover still alive and kicking, it does aim to test new technologies alongside its mission to explore and gather.
Among the most significant of these is the Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity – the four-pound, solar-powered rotary drone that hitched a ride to the surface of the planet attached to the “belly” of the Perseverance. With it, in the next 30 days, NASA aims to test the “first powered flight” on Mars.
Why makes this so significant? You see, while Mars has a little more than one-third of Earth’s gravity, its atmosphere is far, far less dense than that of our planet – approximately 1% as dense. This makes it much less conducive to rotary flight, with much less air off which to generate lift.
To overcome said hurdle, NASA miniaturized the onboard electronics, reducing the weight of the vehicle as much as possible. Onboard hardware includes computers, navigation sensors, radio antennas, internal heaters to protect sensitive electronics during the Red Planet’s cold nights, and two cameras – one color and the other black-and-white.
A solar panel on top charges Lithium-ion batteries that’ll be able to power “one 90-second flight per Martian day.” Lifting that all up are two counter-rotating blades with a span of 4 feet each. The entire vehicle weighs in at 4 pounds in Earth’s gravity and 1.8kg on Mars.
Instructions sent from Earth will be relayed to Ingenuity through the Perseverance rover, after which it will operate autonomously, “without real-time input from Mars Helicopter mission controllers.”