NASA's Ingenuity helicopter going strong after 6 months, 12 flights on Mars
- NASA had initially planned just five flights for its helicopter on Mars, Ingenuity
- It has completed 12 flights and covered a distance of 1.6 miles
- NASA is now working on data from the helicopter to design its successor
NASA had initially planned just five flights for its helicopter on Mars, Ingenuity. However, after completing 12 flights and with no signs of slowing down soon, the US space agency has indefinitely extended the helicopter’s mission.
The success of the helicopter, which is accompanying the rover Perseverance in its search for signs of ancient life on the Red Planet, has even surprised the team of engineers behind the project.
“Everything is working so well. We're doing better on the surface than we had expected,” Josh Ravich, the head of Ingenuity’s mechanical engineering team, told news agency AFP.
Ravich joined the team five years ago, and is among the dozen-odd people who still have day-to-day roles from the hundreds who contributed to the project. When he first got the opportunity to work with NASA on the helicopter, he had the same reaction as probably anyone would have.
“Is that even possible?” Ravich said.
The doubts come from the numerous challenges facing the prospect of flying a helicopter on another planet. The atmosphere on Mars is merely 1% compared to that of Earth, meaning flying a helicopter there would be equivalent to flying one around 10 miles (30 kilometres) above Earth.
Getting the helicopter intact to Mars was another problem, as it had to bear the initial shock of takeoff from Earth and then the landing on Mars on February 18 after completing a seven-month voyage through space, all while strapped to the rover’s underside.
The four-pound (1.8 kilogram) helicopter then had to withstand the icy cold nights on Mars, as it drew energy from its solar cells – that are charged during the day – to keep warm for systems to function optimally.
Also, coordinating its flight real-time is impossible, given the 15-minute communication delay between Mars and Earth, thus its flight is aided by an array of sensors.
“We've actually been able to handle winds greater than we had expected,” Ravich said. “I think by flight three we had actually accomplished all of our engineering goals ... (and) got all the information we had hoped to get.”
In all, Ingenuity has flown a distance of 1.6 miles. NASA is now working on data from the helicopter to design its successor, which could weigh around 20-30 kilograms.
A craft of that size could carry science payloads, which can include rock samples – something NASA intends to retrieve on a future mission in the 2030s.