Six years of effort, experimentation and research by NASA’s GPL scientists have finally paid off. The 1.8 kg helicopter (Ingenuity) flew to the surface of Mars after 11 days. The helicopter went to Mars with Perseverance, But it was defined in a completely independent project and pursued different goals from the Perseverance mission.
“Ingenuity” ambition has been unattainable for humans to this day, and now, after its first flight, it has been able to provide us with the information and experience to be able to fly beyond the borders of the earth.
The design of the “Ingenuity” is completely different from all the helicopters ever built due to the special conditions of Mars. NASA’s GPL engineers had to weigh the “genius” very lightly to fly it, and its dimensions had to be designed to be small enough to travel to Mars with “Perseverance.” On Mars nights, temperatures sometimes drop to minus 90 degrees Celsius, so “Ingenuity” must have a substantial internal heating system to be able to survive in these weather conditions.
In 2009, NASA held a student competition to nominate its new astronaut, so that this time all preschoolers through the twelfth grade could choose the name of the “Mars 2020” mission astronaut, who chose “Perseverance” among all the letters sent to NASA.
Before “Perseverance”, “Ingenuity” sat in the hearts of NASA executives, and in fact the name was chosen for the new NASA rover. But a little later, NASA found the name perfectly appropriate for its Martian helicopter; A mission that involved the initiative and creativity of a large team of GPL engineers.
The latest NASA technology
“Ingenuity” is actually a mission to test NASA’s new technology and has not brought any scientific tools to Mars. What this helicopter is doing is very similar to what the Wright brothers first did to fly an airplane into the Earth’s atmosphere.
“Ingenuity” is the first human attempt to fly to another planet. The density of Mars’ atmosphere is only one percent of Earth’s atmosphere and its gravity is about thirty percent of Earth, making flying in the Martian atmosphere difficult and unpredictable. We have never experienced such a situation, but scientists and GPL engineers in their advanced laboratories have simulated the possible conditions and tested them over and over again.
From 2014 to 2021, GPL scientists and engineers were trying to build a helicopter so that it could fly successfully in these difficult conditions. “Ingenuity” to fly in such conditions must have lighter weight, larger wings and faster rotation than ground-based helicopters.
For this reason, the “Ingenuity” is made of four carbon wings that are connected to two separate engines and rotate in opposite directions. The engine speed of this helicopter reaches 2537 rpm, while the average engine speed of a normal helicopter on the ground is 450 rpm.
Delay is the biggest hurdle in space missions. The speed of light, or rather the speed of information transmission by electromagnetic waves, is only 300,000 kilometers per second. This number may seem incredible at first glance, but the fact is that on a cosmic scale this number is very small!
Despite the limitations of light and today’s technology, it takes between five and twenty minutes to send a radio signal to Mars, which is 15 minutes and 27 seconds, depending on Mars’ current position relative to Earth. Anything can happen to “Ingenuity” – or any other robot – at any moment, and we will know when we can do nothing. Therefore, control in this situation becomes very difficult and the flight team must carefully and patiently review and approve each of the flight steps.
Stages of separation from “Perseverance”
To establish “Ingenuity” in the right place, “Perseverance” took the path to reach the place of flight; Smooth and unobstructed surface in dimensions of ten by ten meters, which was selected long ago with satellite images.
None of the events that occur during the separation process can be reversed, and if the control center receives a danger signal from the astronaut, the separation operation will be stopped for a day or two to identify and eliminate the danger. Therefore, “Perseverance” for six Martian days (six days and four hours on Earth) performed the separation of “Ingenuity” step by step with complete caution:
(Sol-Martian day) 1: Unlock the connection of the helicopter to the astronaut.
Sol 2: Changes the position of the helicopter from horizontal to vertical with a robotic arm and at the same time opening its robotic legs.
Sol 3: End of helicopter mode change.
Sol 4: Fully open the helicopter legs and stay 13 cm above the surface of Mars.
Throughout these four days, Watson’s camera photographed “Ingenuity” to ensure that all steps were performed correctly.
Sol 5: Charge all six helicopter batteries with the astronaut and land completely on the surface of Mars.
After the “Ingenuity” landed on the surface of Mars, the “Perseverance” had to move far enough away to be able to recharge its batteries with a solar panel.
Sol 6: Ensure that the robotic four legs are fully open, a distance of five meters with “Perseverance” and the connection between “Ingenuity” and “Perseverance” with each other.
The last step is done before each flight.
Failure or success?
The “Ingenuity” project is the first of its kind, and even the construction of a helicopter with such specifications is a great success. The “Ingenuity” had to go through steps to fly to Mars, and in fact going through each of these steps is considered a success for the project team:
- Launch, travel to Mars and land on the Red Planet
- Detach from “Perseverance” and be in the right position to fly
- Automatic heating of equipment to prevent freezing at night (minimum temperature of minus 90 degrees Celsius)
- Automatic charging of batteries with solar panel
- Communicating with the astronaut and the ground flight control center
- Starting the flight engine for the first time (at a speed less than the flight speed)
- Getting off the surface of Mars for the first time
- Automatic flight
- Automatic landing
After the first successful flight, up to four more test flights will be performed on 30 Martian days (31 ground days) depending on the conditions.
3, 2, 1 flight!
The “endurance” astronaut today used climate instruments such as Mars’ humidity and wind to use the MEDA instrument to announce the exact time of flight to Earth and send the latest flight instructions to “Ingenuity.” The “Ingenuity” rose from the surface of Mars at an engine speed of 2537 rpm, climbed three meters in 30 seconds at a speed of 1 meter per second, and then landed successfully.
This is the story of human ambition on another planet, somewhere beyond Earth. The story of the short flight of a small helicopter that will be the beginning of new human adventures.