NASA’s Mars Mars helicopter ingenuity: What you need to know before the first flight

Ingenuity flies to Mars in this NASA animation.

NASA / JPL-Caltech

NASA’s wheeled rovers have discovered an incredible amount about Mars. From learning about the wet history of the planet and discovering the chemistry of his soil, yes the confusing presence of methane in its atmosphere, the rolls that were rolling were necessary to paint a picture of one of the Earth’s closest neighbors. They’re extraordinary, but they can’t cover a lot of ground – slow movement is crucial to prevent them from falling over a cliff or colliding with a rock.

But imagine I can fly.

Attaching the wings to a robot on another planet would open up a whole new way to explore other worlds. “The ability to fly wherever you want at high speed, up close, without the risk of collision or fall damage, is an exciting ability,” says Alan Duffy, a professor of astrophysics at Swinburne University in Austria.

That’s exactly what NASA did with ingenuity, tiny, the light rotor must fly through Mars April 11. If it flies, it will be the first time that humans have achieved controlled flight on another planet – the Wright brothers ’moment in another part of space.

However, flying on Mars has significant challenges, and ingenuity has to contend with a planet that especially enjoys killing spacecraft. If he manages to get off the ground, he will pave the way for future missions, deeper in space.

This is why ingenuity is so ingenious.

Pre-flight checks

If you’re wondering how NASA got to Mars by helicopter and you feel like you haven’t heard too much about it, it’s probably because NASA’s Rover Perseverance stole all the attention. Ingenuity is a “ride” mission and a technological demonstration. It is not on Mars to engage in any science. Instead, it is made to show that flying with a motor is possible in another world.

Ingenuity was stuck in the belly of Perseverance during the rover’s long stay from Earth to Mars, which began in July. Rover landed on the planet back in February, and ingenuity was safe and solid from the rough, cold Martian surface until April 4, when Perseverance carefully put down the helicopter on the ground.

While on board the Perseverance, ingenuity protected and propelled the rover’s instrument pack. But after he was rejected and perseverance rolled away, the ingenuity was cold and alone — quite literally. Mars temperatures drop significantly below the ice at night, to about minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately, ingenuity has shown that it can handle the cold from time to time survived his first night separated from a rover friend.

The connection with Perseverance, however, is not over. When ingenuity takes its first flight, it will be perseverance that will carry those messages back to Earth

On April 6, ingenuity took its first photograph of Mars, orange-brown image of a low-resolution surface. Not much, but if you want technique, this is the first time to drive capable in the summer he filmed the surface of the red planet, so it’s pretty cool.

The cabin door is now closed

There are many challenges to achieving flight on Mars, but the main one is air.

There is a big difference in the atmosphere between the red planet and the Earth. The Martian atmosphere is incredibly thin compared to ours, so reaching the elevator is far more difficult. Ingenuity is designed to deal with this problem. Although we have already called it everything, from helicopters to flyers, helicopters to rotors, the technology that reminds me the most is the drone.

However, its blades are much larger than those for vessels of similar size on Earth, and they spin at about 2,400 rpm – six times faster than on ships from Earth. With this speed and magnitude, Earth tests have shown that ingenuity should be able to land from Earth on Mars without any problems.

Unlike drones, however, no one pilots a vehicle in real time. The ingenuity team had to upload the inflows to the ship in advance and then get the data back after the flight. Ingenuity is designed to be very autonomous and to be healthy during communication delays between two planets.

Prepare to take off

Before Perseverance landed in Lake Crater on Feb. 18, a team of ingenuity sought a “takeoff” and surrounding “flight zone” —a flat, mostly empty area on the surface of Mars that would not compromise the safety of ingenuity.

Fortunately, there was one in the neighborhood to the landing site. “We’re starting to realize we could have a really great takeoff, right in front of our noses,” said NASA’s Håvard Fjær Grip, chief pilot for ingenuity. Grip says the team looked at “every stone and pebble” before deciding on a helicopter base.

Within 30 solos (about 31 Earth days), ingenuity plans to make five flights, but the first is the most important. It will be a fairly simple flight.

Rotorcraft will take off, straight up, to a height of about three meters (about 10 feet) and hover in place for about 30 seconds. It will then make a small turn, before descending and landing again. During the flight, Ingenuity’s eyes and brain will work overtime, and the team has pre-programmed them to protect the spacecraft.

It will take 30 frames per second of the earth to understand where it is and to make all the necessary changes in trajectory – according to the Grip, about 500 times per second. This autonomy ensures that ingenuity will not be thrilled by the sudden onslaught of Mars.

Future missions

As NASA engineers have repeated many times: ingenuity is a “technological demonstration”, just like the first Mars rover, the Sojourner, which flew across the planet in 1997.

Ingenuity has already succeeded in many ways: it has survived a trip to Mars, set itself on a planet, and survived the first night alone in the cold. Its first flight will be important, not only for the exploration of Mars, but also for the exploration of our entire solar system.

“If ingenuity proves that we can successfully fly planes on other planets, it will greatly expand the possibilities of research in the future,” says Jonti Horner, a professor of astrophysics at the University of South Queensland.

Flight is a powerful research tool. If the robots can stay in the air, they will be able to climb mountains quickly, explore crevices on slopes, fly over lakes or troughs, and move quickly to avoid danger. With the right equipment, they may be able to grab samples and return them to the rolling robot. You can even imagine a Mars rover-rotorcraft in the future, allowing space agencies to more accurately reconnoiter their landing sites and decide on the best landing site until the next day.

There are other missions – and worlds – that will also benefit from the Ingenuity demonstration.

Dragonfly will explore Saturn’s moon, Titan.


One such mission is NASA’s dragonfly, whom Horner calls Ingenuity’s “big sister,” that mission will visit Titan, one of them the most intriguing moons of Saturn. The moon is rich in organic matter, contains an atmosphere rich in nitrogen like the Earth and is home to it massive methane lakes and storms. It can also contain signs of life, past or present.

“Titan is different from any other place in the solar system, and Dragonfly is like no other mission,” says Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for the scientific mission directorate. It is a little more ambitious than ingenuity, because the spacecraft contains all the necessary instruments to look for signs of life and study the Selk impact crater, which is suspected to have once held liquid water. Dragonfly should be launched in 2027, and Titan will arrive by 2034.

If ingenuity descends from the earth, the dream of that flight will become a reality – ushering in the next era of planetary space exploration.