Over the past few days, the internet has been abuzz with news of NASA’s latest Mars rover, the Perseverance, finally landing at its destination. Missions to Mars have been a part of our country’s space exploration legacy since the Mariner 3 and 4 launched in 1964, and from then on, NASA’s Mars Exploration Program has continued to launch crafts (a mix of orbiters and landers) towards the red planet with several successes and failures. Despite many launches, only eight NASA spacecraft have managed to land on Mars’s surface. The Mars 2020 rover mission is the latest success in a long line of Mars missions. Perseverance was launched on July 30, 2020, and made its landing on February 18, 2021. Interestingly, this rover had a passenger aboard: the Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity.
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is an autonomous helicopter carried under the Perseverance rover, covered by a shield for protection during the descent and landing. It made the trip to Mars to perform its own mission: an experimental flight test. Following in the footsteps of the Mars Pathfinder rover and the Mars Cube One, Ingenuity is a technology demonstration — “a project that seeks to test a new capability for the first time”. After landing, the helicopter must survive its first 30 Martian days (31 Earth days), enduring extreme temperatures.
After that, the team will initiate the first-ever aircraft flight on another planet. The helicopter will attempt to autonomously take-off and hover in Mars’s extremely thin atmosphere. This, along with the planet’s extremely low temperatures, makes flights highly difficult, so by performing its flight, the Ingenuity will be accomplishing a groundbreaking feat. “[I]f the rotorcraft lands successfully and remains operable, up to four more flights could be attempted, each one building on the success of the last.”
Credit: Mars Helicopter Webpage
The Mars Helicopter is masterfully designed. Weighing only 4 pounds, the craft is also solar-powered and can recharge itself. Smartly, it was designed to analyze its surroundings to ensure it maintains its programmed flight path when it eventually takes off. According to the Ingenuity Landing Press Kit, “NASA has invested about $85 million to build the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, accommodate it on Perseverance, and operate the helicopter on Mars.”
The Ingenuity was built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California. JPL manages the Mars Helicopter Technology Demonstration for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. MiMi Aung, who serves as the project manager at JPL, describes the endeavor as uncharted territory. She states, “Just about every milestone from here through the end of our flight demonstration program will be a first, and each has to succeed for us to go on to the next. We’ll enjoy this good news for the moment, but then we have to get back to work.” Reported on February 19th, mission controllers at JPL received a downlink with Ingenuity’s first status report. The report indicated that “both the helicopter and its base station ... are operating as expected.” According to Tim Canham, Ingenuity’s operations lead at JPL, this positive report is exactly what the team was looking for and gives them the go-ahead to move the mission forward.
Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter's mission will be the culmination of years of hard work by many people, and the world is waiting to see the team’s goals come to fruition. The success of this mission could lead to the inclusion of more aerial elements in future mars missions. While this mission was years in the making, it is just the beginning for many possible future endeavors. For more in-depth information on NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, check out Ingenuity’s press kit or the Mars Helicopter webpage, where you can read about the technical aspects of Ingenuity, the team’s objectives, and the mission itself.