A team of very smart humans flew a helicopter by remote control off the surface of Mars on April 19, 2021. It is easier to type that sentence than it is to truly appreciate the accomplishment.
The Mars Helicopter, named Ingenuity, weighs just four pounds. It is a proof of concept demonstration. That means it’s mission is just to prove that it works. It did. And it was the first time humans have achieved powered and controlled flight on another planet.
Ingenuity hitched a ride on the Perseverance rover. I wrote about Perseverance after it landed. Nicknamed “Percy,” it has a detailed science mission to look for signs of life on Mars. But first it was tasked with dropping Ingenuity, “Ginny,” onto the Martian surface, backing away and watching while the Ingenuity team tried to make their little drone fly.
This short video, taken by Perseverance, shows the entire first flight:
Mars is the closest planet to Earth, and has entranced humans since the beginning of recorded history. It is behind a paywall, but if you have access the Washington Post has produced a wonderful overview of the history of Mars exploration and the plans for this mission, known as Mars 2020.
The challenge for Ingenuity is that the atmosphere on Mars is only one percent the density of that of Earth. Strange at it seems, most of our airplanes effectively pull themselves through the atmosphere like a corkscrew pulls a cork out of a bottle. On Mars there is very little atmosphere to grab hold of. That produced a design for Ginny that meant a very low weight craft with relatively big rotors spinning at very high speeds. And of course the fact that radio signals take many minutes to get from Earth to Mars meant that Ginny, like Percy, has to be fed instructions but is then on its own to execute them. We humans find out if the task was achieved minutes or even hours later.
This was an amazing feat and in so many ways a tonic for the times in which we live. There are those who question the value of this kind of scientific research and exploration. Surveys show many people perceive the cost to be high. But in fact, the NASA budget is a tiny fraction of the military’s budget. The military budget just for its new Space Force and Space Command is higher. The debate is heated, but a majority of Americans favor continued funding for NASA.
Studies show that for every dollar spent on NASA, more than $8 is added to the economy. And you had only to watch the control room crew as the data came in documenting Ginny’s first flight on another planet to see how this research is exciting new generations of explorers. When I was a child watching the Mercury astronauts I saw images almost exclusively of white men wearing white shirts and narrow black ties. We now know that behind the scenes there were crucial if unsung members of the team kept hidden from the cameras. Today’s teams represent men and women across all demographics. If the United States is to remain competitive and really matter in the 21st century we need to do more to encourage all young people to pursue scientific careers.
Now that the helicopter concept has been proven, scientists and engineers planning future missions to Mars and elsewhere have access to a treasure trove of research as they explore the use of flying vehicles on their missions. There are, for example, many locations on Mars that are inaccessible by rover but are of great interest to planetary scientists. There is also an upcoming mission to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Titan has an atmosphere denser than that of Mars. There is already a helicopter named Dragonfly planned for that mission which is now scheduled to launch in 2026, arriving in 2034.
Even while waiting for Ginny to finish her testing, Percy is working. The MOXIE technology demonstration aboard Perseverance successfully extracted oxygen from the thin Martian atmosphere—a critical component for life support so humans can breath on the Red Planet and produce rocket fuel for the trip home.
The continuing plan for Mars 2020 is for Ingenuity to make several more test flights over the next few weeks, each one pushing the helicopter to fly higher and further away. A second flight was made on April 22nd, a third on April 25th. As often happens with technology demonstrations, it may well be pushed beyond its limits and crash on the surface. In any event, by the end of April it will be left behind as Perseverance leaves the scene to begin it’s own exploration of the Martian surface, which will include the collection of samples for retrieval on later flights.
You read that right. The Mars 2020 mission will be collecting samples of Mars to be picked up by later flights. Stay tuned.
Update – Ingenuity Tests Extended
After a successful fourth flight, NASA announced it would extend the test flight program for Ingenuity for another 30 days. Ginny’s mission was slated to end at the end of April. Now NASA plans to test the chopper’s ability to be a “scout” for future exploration by the Perseverance rover and future missions.
Perseverance will be farther from Ingenuity during the new flight phase, but the team thinks that the pair will still be able to communicate effectively. Additionally, Perseverance will not take the time to document the flights Ingenuity makes during its extended mission. NASA will continue to provide updates on Ingenuity’s progress here.