Born in Pasadena and destined to make history on the Red Planet, engineers have been making final adjustments to NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, which its creators hope will become the first experimental test flight of a powered aircraft on another planet after blasting off next month.
After traveling 314 million miles to Mars, tucked into the belly of the the NASA-JPL Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, the small helicopter is to be carefully lowered the final 5 inches onto the planet’s surface, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a written statement.
“Ingenuity is unlike any other helicopter ever built because powered controlled flight at Mars is unlike anything ever attempted,” Mars Helicopter Project Manager MiMi Aung of JPL said.”And then we had to figure out how to hitch a ride and safely get deployed from the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover.”
The mission is scheduled to launch on July 20, then touch down on at Mars’ Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021. If all goes as planned, the helicopter will be deployed from the rover and make its maiden flight about two months later.
Beyond the difficulties of controlling a helicopter from a distance that light takes minutes to span, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter will also need to fly in an atmosphere only about 1 percent the density of Earth’s.
To make it possible, reducing the weight of the machine has been a constant endeavor throughout the project’s development, Mars 2020 Ingenuity Helicopter Interface Lead Chris Salvo of JPL explained.
“On a Mars rover mission, the addition of even one new washer is usually worthy of debate,”he said. “The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is a large, fragile, unique assemblage of hardware that is dissimilar to anything NASA has ever accommodated on a planetary mission.”
The fuselage of the aircraft is about the size of a softball, according to JPL. It hangs below two rotors that are each 4 feet across.
An antenna, a solar panel and landing legs are affixed to the exterior of the box-shaped helicopter. The entire device weighs about 4 pounds.
To fit beneath the rover, it needs to be mounted sideways and deployed with a specially designed mechanism, according to Salvo.
“That is not a lot of room to play with,” said Salvo, “but we found if you attach the helicopter horizontally, there is enough to get the job done.”
The deployment system underwent testing at Lockheed Martin Space in Denver, Colorado, in late-April is part of the final preparations before launch.
The primary purpose of the helicopter is as a proof of concept and an experiment to test technologies that may be employed in future exploration missions, JPL representatives said..
“Future Mars missions could enlist second-generation helicopters to add an aerial dimension to their explorations,” according to the JPL statement. “They could act as scouts for human crews, carry small payloads or investigate cliffs, caves, deep craters and other unvisited or difficult-to-reach destinations. But before any of that happens, a test vehicle has to prove it’s possible.”
To be part of such a groundbreaking mission was exciting, Aung said.
“Our teams had to work closely together to make this complex system work. When Ingenuity flies, it will be an achievement we can all share,” she said.
More information about the Mars 2020 Mission, including both the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter, is available on JPL’s website.