NASA's Ingenuity attempts its first test flight on Mars


When NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter attempts its first test flight on the Red Planet, the agency's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will be close by, as seen in this artist's concept. — courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech
When NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter attempts its first test flight on the Red Planet, the agency's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will be close by, as seen in this artist's concept. — courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

CAPE CANAVERAL — The Mars 2020 Mission, Perseverance Rover, is now at its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, with the launch planned for Thursday (July 30, at 7:50 a.m. EDT). The Mars 2020 spacecraft with its Perseverance Rover will launch on an Atlas V-541 rocket from Launch Complex 41 here in Florida.

The Atlas V is one of the largest rockets available for interplanetary flight. This is the same type of rocket that launched the InSight and Curiosity to Mars. The launch vehicle is provided by United Launch Alliance, Centennial Colorado.

When NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, an innovative experiment will ride along: the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. Ingenuity weighs only about 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms), but it has some outsize ambitions.

The spacecraft will carry the Ingenuity helicopter, which is securely fastened to the Perseverance Mars Rover awaiting a launch attempt from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Ingenuity is intended to demonstrate technologies needed for flying in the Martian atmosphere. If successful, these technologies could enable other advanced robotic flying vehicles that might be included in future robotic and human missions to Mars.

They could offer a unique viewpoint not provided by current orbiters high overhead or by rovers and landers on the ground, provide high-definition images and reconnaissance for robots or humans, and enable access to terrain that is difficult for rovers to reach.

According to a BBC report, "The Ingenuity team has done everything to test the helicopter on Earth, and we are looking forward to flying our experiment in the real environment at Mars," said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager at JPL.

"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."

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California have proven time and again that when it comes to landing and operating robotic probes and rovers on the distant Red Planet they pretty much know what you’re doing.

A NASA report stated, “When it came to determining if this would work the JPL project team had to learn rotor dynamics, so they came to us for help,” said Wayne Johnson, a senior researcher with the rotorcraft aeromechanics group at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.

Vertical lift aircraft, which includes helicopters, is something NASA researchers have studied since the earliest days of flight, beginning with NASA’s predecessor organization, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

“The problems you have to solve to fly a helicopter aren’t all that different whether you’re talking about Earth or Mars. We were able to help them better understand their design and refine their methods and the tools they used for testing it,” Johnson said.

“This is so exciting for us. It really is,” said Carlos Malpica, an aerospace engineer at Ames who is a rotorcraft flight dynamics and control expert for NASA’s Revolutionary Vertical Lift Technology project.

“When we started working on the project, we started doing it with a lot of uncertainty about whether it would even be possible to do. There were significant technical challenges to overcome,” Malpica said.

Among them was to ensure the vehicle could take off in a controlled manner in a thin Martian atmosphere that is equivalent to about 100,000 feet high on Earth — an altitude that no Earth-based helicopter has reached even half that distance.

Others had to do with designing the vehicle to survive bitterly cold Martian nights where temperatures plunge to minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit, and to operate largely on its own since direct pilot control isn’t possible given the distance between Mars and Earth.

Indeed, if all goes well with the mission after its targeted landing on Mars in February 2021, Ingenuity’s inaugural technology demonstration flight will echo the Wright Brothers’ 1903 achievement on Earth by making the first powered flight of an aircraft in another planet’s atmosphere.

“Whatever problem may occur on Mars, it won’t change the fact that we’ve already proven with the testing we’ve done that, yeah, you can fly a helicopter on Mars,” Johnson said.

Weighing less than four pounds with a main body the size of a softball, there’s no room for any science experiments on Ingenuity. Martian science was never the goal of the helicopter in the first place.

“This is just a demonstration of technology to show that flying on Mars is possible, but eventually we’d like to design and fly a helicopter on Mars that actually has a science mission,” Johnson said.

Already, NASA’s aeronautics and space experts are thinking about what a future Mars helicopter might look like and what kind of explorations it could do if loaded with science instruments. — NASA/Agencies