Flying on Earth has become common. Flying on another planet? That’s an idea that’s out of this world.
NASA hopes to watch this idea take flight on Mars with Ingenuity, a small robotic helicopter.
The first flight was supposed to be on April 11th but has been delayed and is expected to occur later in April. Ingenuity is a technology experiment that was taken aboard the Perseverance Rover, but is separate from the Perseverance Rover tasks.
Dave Lavery is the Program Executive for Solar System Exploration at NASA. He says that the idea of flight on another planet has been a dream since the beginning of planetary exploration. Recently, Lavery has watched this project come to life.
“The problem has been, up until very recently, that the technology just wasn’t advanced enough to really make it feasible. And so that piece of technology development happened about five years ago. So for the past five years, we’ve been working on this as a concentrated effort to actually build this as a real spacecraft that we can actually stick onboard the Perseverance mission and send to Mars.”
The Ingenuity mission will open the door for future planetary exploration, but in total will only last about a month.
“Ingenuity is a very very quick effort. It’s basically got a time period of what we call 30 Martian sols or 30 Martian days, which is about 31 Earth days. And during that time period, we hope to conduct up to five significant test flights to understand and validate the technology.”
If you think flying in Earth’s atmosphere can be tricky, flying in Mar’s atmosphere can be even more challenging, says Lavery.
“So the biggest difference between trying to fly on Mars and trying to fly on Earth really is related to the atmosphere itself. The atmosphere on Mars, it is there, it has an atmosphere, but it’s very very thin. It’s only about 1% the density of the atmosphere of Earth. So it’s like trying to fly an airplane at 100,000 feet, which is very very difficult.”
On the flip side of that coin, the gravity on Mars is only about one third of Earth’s gravity. That means that NASA only has to create one third the lift to get Ingenuity up in the air compared to what you would need here on Earth. Despite this favorable aspect, Mar’s thin atmosphere still poses a tough environment for flight.
Now you may think that the term helicopter means it is the size of one here on Earth. Ingenuity is more like the size of a drone. You won’t be able to copilot this machine.
“The main fuselage is only about the size of a softball. And the whole thing only weighs about four pounds. The rotors on the helicopter itself basically stretch about four feet across from tip to tip. So it’s not that large. But the capabilities and the technology that it’s going to prove by flying at Mars would be the same as if it was a much larger scaled up aircraft,” says Lavery.
Ingenuity will be taking its first flight, but Lavery notes it will have a little piece of North Carolina history along for the ride that would make the Wright Brothers proud.
“A first flight on another planet tying back to the very first flight back here on Earth. And one of the things that we’ve done in order to actually honor the Wright Brothers development and their first flight in 1903, is we’re actually carrying a very small piece of fabric from the original Wright Flyer from 1903 aboard Ingenuity. So when it flies for the first time on Mars, it’s actually doing a second first flight.”
Another incredible aspect of the mission is that NASA wants to share their findings with the public as soon as possible. They are inviting all of us to join in on the new discoveries.
“So the entire process of Ingenuity flying and beyond Ingenuity, the Perseverance Rover mission as well, we really want to share with people as it happens as broadly as possible. So you can come and join in our exploration. All the images and the information that we get back from these missions, we’re putting out on our public website as fast as we get it. So you can literally see the images that will come back from the rover and from the helicopter at the same time the scientists and the engineers do,” says Lavery.
So while we wait for the new date for Ingenuity’s first flight, let us continue to dream of the potential possibilities in future planetary exploration.