NASA wants to fly a helicopter to Mars for the first time

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Washington (AFP)

More than a century after the first flight on Earth, NASA intends to prove that it is possible to repeat the feat in another world.

Transported by the Mars 2020 spacecraft arriving on the Red Planet on Thursday, the small Ingenuity helicopter will have several challenges to overcome – the largest being the dilute Martian atmosphere, which is only one percent of Earth’s density.

– ultralight –

It could be called a helicopter, but in appearance it is closer to the mini drones we have become accustomed to seeing in recent years.

Weighing just 1.8 kilograms, its blades are much larger and spin about five times faster – 2,400 rpm – than would be needed to generate the same amount of lift on Earth.

Still, it gets some help from Mars, where gravity is only a third of the gravity on our home planet.

The ingenuity has four feet, a box-like housing, and four carbon fiber blades arranged in two rotors that rotate in opposite directions. It comes with two cameras, computers and navigation sensors.

It is also equipped with solar cells to charge the batteries, with much of the energy being used for heating on cold Martian nights, where temperatures drop to minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius).

The helicopter rides on the belly of the Perseverance rover, which will land it after it lands and then take it away.

– 90 other flights –

In the first few months of the mission, up to five flights of gradual difficulty are planned, over a period of one month.

Ingenuity will fly at altitudes of 3-5 meters (3-5 meters) and travel as much as 160 meters (50 meters) from its starting area and back.

Each flight will last up to a minute and a half – compared to the 12 seconds the Wright brothers achieved on the first controlled flight to Kitty Hawk in North Carolina in 1903.

Like the Perseverance rover, the ingenuity is too far from Earth to be controlled by a joystick, so it is designed to fly autonomously.

The ship’s computers will work with sensors and cameras to keep it on the path programmed by its engineers.

But the outcome of these flights will be known only after they take place.

– What’s the goal? –

NASA describes the Ingenuity mission as a “technological demonstration”: a project that attempts to test a new ability along with the astrobiological mission of Perseverance.

If successful, however, it “basically opens up a whole new dimension of Mars exploration,” said Bob Balaram, Ingenuity’s chief engineer.

Future models could offer better viewpoints that do not see current orbits or slow-moving rovers on the ground, allowing helicopters to go out on the field for land robots or humans.

They could even help transfer light cargo from one location to another – such as rock and soil samples that Perseverance will collect in the next phase of the Mars 2020 mission.