Space Technology

Ingenuity: A Wright Brothers Moment on Mars

Image source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Overview NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter successfully completed a historic flight on the surface of Mars, marking the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. Learn more about the technology that makes up the small helicopter and why it’s critical for flight on Mars.

"The Wright Brothers showed that powered flight in Earth's atmosphere was possible, using an experimental aircraft," said Håvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. "With Ingenuity, we're trying to do the same for Mars."

Ingenuity is a technology demonstration — a project seeking to test a new capability for the first time. Previous technology demonstrations include the Mars Pathfinder rover Sojourner and the Mars Cube One.

The small helicopter, a six-year-long development, was created to fly within Mars’s unique environment and the successful flight of Ingenuity is of critical importance to future Mars missions.

 

Ingenuity, Developed with Ingenuity

Mars has an atmosphere that is 99% less dense than that of Earth and roughly a third of the gravity experienced on Earth. At Jezero Crater, where the Perseverance rover landed with Ingenuity, temperatures can also drop to negative 130 degrees Fahrenheit. The unique conditions of the planet called for innovative design considerations.

The structure and electronics of Ingenuity weigh only four pounds — roughly equivalent to one and a half pounds on Mars. The helicopter’s blades are made of a foam core surrounded by carbon fiber, making them lightweight but sturdy enough to carry the helicopter.

Ingenuity is also testing novel solar cells and batteries. It performs its functions autonomously, generating energy from solar arrays on top of its rotors to warm its own electronics and recharge as needed.

Waypoint navigation paired with cameras and sensors enable Ingenuity to explore Mars as intended, provide images and videos, and communicate with Perseverance and control teams.

 

Ready for Future Flights

The engineering data that researchers collect from Ingenuity’s month on Mars can be leveraged for future Mars projects with better helicopters and advanced robotic vehicles.

Aerial viewpoints with clear imaging can enable access to terrains that are difficult for rovers such as Perseverance to navigate.

The successful flights of Ingenuity in the coming month will be a major milestone in space technology and a stepping stone for more advanced flight mechanics to explore Mars and more.

“We’ll be learning all along the way, and it will be the ultimate reward for our team to be able to add another dimension to the way we explore other worlds in the future”, said Ingenuity project manager Mimi Aung.

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