First 'space helicopter' set to take to Martian skies

  

Category:  News & Politics

Via:  perrie-halpern  •  2 weeks ago  •  9 comments

By:   Tom Metcalfe

First 'space helicopter' set to take to Martian skies
Dubbed "Ingenuity," the drone weighs just 4 pounds, and it will stay stored beneath the rover's belly while Perseverance runs through its initial surface checks and experiments.

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T



When NASA's Perseverance rover touches down next week, it will carry one of the strangest devices ever seen on Mars — a drone destined to make the first controlled flights on an extraterrestrial planet.

Dubbed "Ingenuity," the drone weighs just 4 pounds, and it will stay stored beneath the rover's belly while Perseverance runs through its initial surface checks and experiments.

But about the middle of April, the rover will scout out a flat area without large rocks to deploy the drone, and soon after that Perseverance will release Ingenuity to make the first flights on Mars.

"It's pretty unique in that it's a helicopter that can fly around," said Tim Canham, the operations lead for the Ingenuity project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

"There was a balloon mission on Venus years ago, so we can't claim to be the first aircraft," he said, referring to the two Soviet Vega space probes that deployed balloons attached to scientific instruments in the clouds on Venus in 1985. "But we can claim we're the first powered aircraft outside Earth."

Canham will coordinate the five test flights scheduled for the Ingenuity drone over 30 days, with each at least three days apart.

"The first flight will be very basic - it will just go straight up, hover and go straight down," he said. "After that, we'll do a couple of flights where we go horizontally, to test how it works."

The car-size Perseverance rover has seven complex scientific instruments, so it can take panoramic video, monitor the weather, perform ultraviolet and X-ray spectroscopy on anything it finds, and look for signs of ancient microbial life.

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But, Ingenuity will carry out no science on its test flights. It will only take photographs of the Martian terrain with its two cameras, one facing forward and one down.

Instead, the Ingenuity project is designed to show drones can be an important addition to the ongoing explorations of distant planets, Canham said.

"Our job is really to prove that the aerodynamics, as we've tested them here, work also on Mars," he said.

Mars is a hard place to fly, which is why Ingenuity weighs so little and needs two counter-rotating 4-foot-long helicopter rotors to stay aloft.

Although the gravity of Mars is just a third of that of Earth, the red planet has a very thin atmosphere with just 1 percent the pressure of Earth, which makes flying difficult.

Mars is also freezing cold - it gets down to minus 100 Fahrenheit at night in the giant Jezero crater where the rover will land, perhaps rising as high as 40 degrees during the day. The extreme conditions will test the drone's design.

Canham explained that Ingenuity only has enough battery power so that each of its test flights can last up to 90 seconds, in which time it should fly about 330 feet.

Sensors will monitor aspects such as the drone's altitude, movements, aerodynamic performance and how it reacts to gusts of wind.

The cold will also affect Ingenuity's lithium-ion batteries, so keeping the drone warm overnight while recharging from its solar panels during the day is a big part of the project, Canham said.

"We have these 90-second flights, but then a lot of the time is spent running the heater," he said. "I joke that we are a heater that occasionally flies."

The concept of using drones on robot probes to explore the solar system is relatively new, and this is unlikely to be the last flight on another planet or moon.

NASA is already planning a more complex helicopter drone for Mars, and the proposed Dragonfly mission to Saturn's moon Titan would launch in the late 2020s. It would deploy an entire drone helicopter probe equipped with scientific instruments in the thick but unbreathable atmosphere there, where it is much easier to fly than on Mars.

Planetary scientist Lori Fenton of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) in California, who studies sand dunes on Mars and the challenges for robot Mars rovers, said she remembered a scientific proposal 12 years ago that suggested using a drone to study a field site somewhere in the western United States.

"[Some] panel members thought it was absurd that someone was requesting funding to use a 'toy' to do science," she said. "Since then, the UAV industry has exploded, and here we are — about to land a drone on Mars that will do exactly the sort of reconnaissance that the review panel laughed at," she said, referring to unmanned aerial vehicles.


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Ed-NavDoc
Masters Quiet
1  Ed-NavDoc    2 weeks ago

Very interesting post Perrie. This helicopter could be the beginning of a whole new dimension on how we view the planet Mars. Thanks for posting it.

 
 
 
Kavika
Professor Principal
2  Kavika     2 weeks ago

Great post, love the idea of the drone and how they will have to heat it to protect the batteries. 

The new space race is on. The US, China, and the UAE are the contestants.

 
 
 
sandy-2021492
PhD Principal
3  sandy-2021492    2 weeks ago
Although the gravity of Mars is just a third of that of Earth, the red planet has a very thin atmosphere with just 1 percent the pressure of Earth, which makes flying difficult.

I was wondering about that.  Seems like it would be really difficult to get adequate lift.

 
 
 
Gordy327
PhD Principal
3.1  Gordy327  replied to  sandy-2021492 @3    2 weeks ago
I was wondering about that.  Seems like it would be really difficult to get adequate lift.

The rotor surface area needs to be large enough to "grab" the air and generate enough lift in the thinner martian atmosphere. Fortunately, the drone itself is very light and the weaker gravity makes it lighter.

 
 
 
Ed-NavDoc
Masters Quiet
3.1.1  Ed-NavDoc  replied to  Gordy327 @3.1    2 weeks ago

Not to mention a higher torque on the rotor head to allow the blades to spin faster to get more bite in the thin air.

 
 
 
1stwarrior
Professor Expert
4  1stwarrior    2 weeks ago

Curious as to why they would land inside a crater which, effectively, will hinder the solar/battery operations due to the extreme cold and shorter "daylight" hours necessary for recharging.

90 second flights ain't gonna give you much information.  But, then again, those flights are just operational tests, right?

 
 
 
Gordy327
PhD Principal
4.1  Gordy327  replied to  1stwarrior @4    2 weeks ago

Craters are thought to have been bodies of water, where life might have existed. They also might contain sediment layers and rocks of different textures or compositions to examine. NASA's JPL offers an explanation. 

 
 
 
Freefaller
PhD Guide
4.2  Freefaller  replied to  1stwarrior @4    2 weeks ago
Curious as to why they would land inside a crater which, effectively, will hinder the solar/battery operations due to the extreme cold and shorter "daylight" hours necessary for recharging.

What Gordy said plus Jezero Crater is 45 kms wide and old and weathered which should result in minimal effects on it's recharging

But, then again, those flights are just operational tests, right?

They do appear to be mostly proof of concept flights with a little aerial photography thrown in

 
 
 
Ender
PhD Principal
5  Ender    2 weeks ago

I think they should name the drone Janet...

.

 
 
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