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JPL Engineers Run Groundbreaking Helicopter Tests in Pasadena and on Mars

Published on Monday, November 27, 2023 | 5:40 am

This video combines two perspectives of the 59th flight of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. Video on the left was captured by the Mastcam-Z on NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover; the black-and-white video on the right was taken by Ingenuity’s downward-pointing Navcam. The flight occurred Sept 16. [Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS]

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena is making history by testing future aircraft designs on two planets simultaneously. JPL engineers recently tested a new rotor for next-generation Mars helicopters, spinning at near-supersonic speeds (0.95 Mach), while the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter achieved new altitude and airspeed records on Mars.

Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity’s project manager and manager for the Mars Sample Recovery Helicopters, said, “Our next-generation Mars helicopter testing has literally had the best of both worlds. Here on Earth, you have all the instrumentation and hands-on immediacy you could hope for while testing new aircraft components. On Mars, you have the real off-world conditions you could never truly re-create here on Earth.”

The next-generation carbon fiber rotor blades being tested at JPL are almost 4 inches longer than Ingenuity’s, with greater strength and a different design. These blades could enable bigger, more capable Mars helicopters. However, as the blade tips approach supersonic speeds, vibration-causing turbulence can quickly get out of hand.

To simulate the Martian atmosphere on Earth, engineers used JPL’s 25-foot wide, 85-foot-tall space simulator. For three weeks in September, a team monitored sensors, meters, and cameras as the blades endured run after run at ever-higher speeds and greater pitch angles.

Tyler Del Sesto, Sample Recovery Helicopter deputy test conductor at JPL, said, “We spun our blades up to 3,500 rpm, which is 750 revolutions per minute faster than the Ingenuity blades have gone. These more efficient blades are now more than a hypothetical exercise. They are ready to fly.”

Meanwhile, about 100 million miles away, Ingenuity was being commanded to try things the Mars Helicopter team never imagined they would get to do. 

This simultaneous testing on Earth and Mars marks a significant milestone in the development of future aircraft designs.

Ingenuity was originally slated to fly no more than five times. With its first flight entering the mission logbook more than two-and-a-half years ago, the helicopter has exceeded its planned 30-day mission by 32 times and has flown 66 times. Every time Ingenuity goes airborne, it covers new ground, offering a perspective no previous planetary mission could achieve. But lately, Team Ingenuity has been taking their solar-powered rotorcraft out for a spin like never before.

“Over the past nine months, we have doubled our max airspeed and altitude, increased our rate of vertical and horizontal acceleration, and even learned to land slower,” said Travis Brown, Ingenuity’s chief engineer at JPL. “The envelope expansion provides invaluable data that can be used by mission designers for future Mars helicopters.”

Limited by available energy and motor-temperature considerations, Ingenuity flights usually last around two to three minutes. Although the helicopter can cover more ground in a single flight by flying faster, flying too fast can confuse the onboard navigation system. The system uses a camera that recognizes rocks and other surface features as they move through its field of view. If those features whiz by too fast, the system can lose its way.

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