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NASA is sending a helicopter to Mars, but what for? [mashable.com]:
NASA is sending a helicopter to Mars, but what for?
NASA's mission to send another rover to Mars is set to culminate in a successful landing on February 18, 2021, but that's not all the agency is sending to the Red Planet.
The Perseverance rover – once it lands next month – will begin scouring a section of Mars that astronomers believe could have hosted and supported microbial life in the past.
But a second passenger aboard the lander vehicle will be meant to do something else entirely.
The Mars Helicopter – also known as Ingenuity – will deploy alongside the rover, and will be NASA's attempt at trying to achieve successful controlled flight on Mars [nasa.gov] for the very first time.
Ingenuity weighs only four pounds, and is described as a "small, but mighty passenger". Though it has a fuselage (main body) no bigger than a tissue box, it's supposedly strong enough to brave the harsh weather conditions on the planet during flight.
Started as a wishful project about six years ago, the engineers behind Ingenuity understood that while it was theoretically possible to fly in Mars' super-thin atmosphere, there was no real conviction that they'd be able to build a vehicle that could fly, communicate, and survive on its own on Mars.
But after rounds of research and testing, the team have managed to create a flying vehicle that has so far survived all tests emulating Mars' environment, and the next step is to make it fly on the Red Planet for real.
IMAGE: NASA [nasa.gov]
“Our Mars Helicopter team has been doing things that have never been done before – that no one at the outset could be sure could even be done,” said MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
“We faced many challenges along the way that could have stopped us in our tracks. We are thrilled that we are now so close to demonstrating – on Mars – what Ingenuity can really do.”
NASA said that Ingenuity managed to survive the intense vibrations during the July 30, 2020 take-off, and has passed its health checks while it waits to enter Mars' atmosphere alongside the Perseverance rover.
However, Ingenuity will not attempt to fly for over a month after its landing, as engineers will need time to ensure everything is in order before giving both the rover and the helicopter the clearance to begin their tasks.
When @NASAPersevere [twitter.com] touches down on the Red Planet in 28 days, so will an experimental helicopter attempting the first controlled flight on another planet! 🚁 #CountdownToMars [twitter.com] & check out 6 things to know about this new @NASA_Technology [twitter.com] named Ingenuity: https://t.co/fml9S8s840 [t.co]pic.twitter.com/wqqL8l4iaJ [t.co]
— NASA (@NASA) January 21, 2021 [twitter.com]
Here are six things NASA wants all of us to know about Ingenuity:
1. It's an experimental flight test.
Rather than an exploratory project with set-in-stone objectives, Ingenuity will be meant as a technology demonstration. In this case, the objective will be to "demonstrate rotorcraft flight in Mars' extremely thin atmosphere".
Considering that the planet's atmosphere has only about one percent of the density of Earth's, this will prove to be quite the challenge.
Over its 30-Martian-day (31-Earth-day) demonstration window, Ingenuity will have up to five test flight attempts to achieve successful flight.
2. It won't be easy.
As mentioned, the extremely thin atmosphere on Mars will make it quite difficult for Ingenuity to achieve successful flight. As such, it's been designed to be extra-light, but coupled with rotor blades much larger and faster than what would be required for a craft of Ingenuity's size on Earth.
Also, the extreme temperature on Mars will pose a separate challenge. With nights as cold as minus 90 degrees Celsius at the landing site, the off-the-shelf mechanical components of Ingenuity will be pushed to their absolute limits.
While testing under similar conditions on Earth proved successful, the team behind Ingenuity is looking forward to the real test on Mars.
IMAGE: NASA [nasa.gov]
“Mars isn’t exactly pulling out the welcome mat,” said Tim Canham, Ingenuity’s operations lead at JPL. “One of the first things Ingenuity has to do when it gets to Mars is just survive its first night.”
3. It will rely on the Perseverance mission to succeed.
Ingenuity will rely on the Perseverance mission for a safe journey and landing on the Red Planet.
On its 471-kilometer journey to Mars, it will be nestled "sideways" under the Perseverance rover, and during landing, there will be a cover to protect it from harmful kicked-up debris.
There will also be various other protocols in place to ensure that Ingenuity makes it to Mars in one piece, including the deployment of a supersonic parachute and a sky crane maneuver to carefully lower both the rover and the helicopter onto the surface from the lander vehicle.
Ingenuity will also rely on the rover to transmit and receive communications back on Earth.
4. Ingenuity is really smart.
Because of the inherent delays in communicating with spacecraft across vast distances, Ingenuity will make its own decisions instead of relying on its flight controllers back on Earth.
IMAGE: Space.com [space.com]
Based on parameters set by scientists back on Earth, the helicopter will use various tools to keep itself "healthy" during its outing on Mars, such as an in-built thermostat to keep it warm, and sensors to keep it on pre-determined flight paths.
5. Success will come in stages.
The team behind Ingenuity has set a list of milestones that it must reach before it can begin flying on Mars. This includes surviving the journey to Mars, safely deploying to the surface, autonomously keeping warm and charging itself via its affixed solar panels, and successfully communicating with the rover.
6. This could be a stepping stone for future aerial missions.
While Ingenuity was only meant as a technological demonstration, successful flight could provide an avenue for robotic flying vehicles to become essential components in future space exploration missions to Mars.
Such advancements would no doubt provide significant advantages, such as offering unique vantage points currently not attainable by on-ground rovers or high-altitude orbiters, and being able to explore difficult terrain not reachable by rovers. Light transportation of items has also been put forth as a possible use-case.
With the date for the Perseverance landing inching ever close, it will be interesting to see what becomes of the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars – will NASA's calculations and tests prove reliable, or will Mars prove far too uncooperative for rotorcraft flight?
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Cover image sourced from NASA [nasa.gov].