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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Helicopter lift-off on Mars: what does the future hold?

The future of Martian flight opened up on Monday. It is going to be another journey of discovery in the next decade or two as we fine-tune the engineering and the application of Martian helicopters.

Written by Amitabha Ghosh |
Updated: April 20, 2021 7:16:01 am
Team at NASA's JPL reacts after Ingenuity (on screen) makes its first flight on Mars on Monday. (Source: NASA video grab via Reuters)

As the first light of the sun flickered through the clouds of a cool spring morning at Washington, a small helicopter took off on a cold and desolate planet nearly 300 million km away. The news from another world so far away, provided perhaps a little cheer away from the stark reality of the epidemic on Earth. At 6:46 am EST, data downlink from Mars showed that Mars Ingenuity, the tiny helicopter, had taken its first 40-second flight where it ascended about 3 metres in the air.

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Wright Brothers moment

A couple of years ago, I visited Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on the way to a family vacation. Kitty Hawk is a nondescript town at the tip of the Outer Banks. It is at Kitty Hawk that a couple of brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, had this surprising desire to try fly what would become the first airplane on Earth. If you step back a hundred years, at the time, let alone flying, cars were not in vogue. It is in 1903 that the first Ford car was assembled: right around the time when the Wright Brothers were trying to fly the first plane. Hence, it is interesting that humans pursued the desire to fly at a time when cars were a rarity. The primary mode of transportation was horses and horse carriages: there was a resistance, at the time, to transitioning to the “horseless carriage” or the car. Like Ingenuity, the first powered flight of the Wright Brothers was short (about 12 seconds). Like Ingenuity, no one knew at the time (of the successful flight) whether or if the flight would transform science and technology or have no bearing on the course of history. For the Wright brothers, of course, we know that the flight changed human civilisation. For Mars Ingenuity, of course, we do not know what will happen in the future: either way, we will perhaps know in half a century.

The Expert

Dr Amitabha Ghosh is a NASA planetary scientist based in Washington DC. He has worked for multiple NASA Mars missions starting with the Mars Pathfinder Mission in 1997. He served as Chair of the Science Operations Working Group for the Mars Exploration Rover Mission, and was tasked with leading tactical Rover Operations on Mars for more than 10 years. He helped analyse the first rock on Mars, which incidentally happened to be the first rock analysed from another planet.

Helicopter in Mars mission

Fast forward a hundred years: The desire to try the ambitious experiment, bordering between the insane and the ambitious, because the atmosphere is so thin on Mars, came from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Somehow, this experiment did not gel with the broad goals of the Perseverance Rover that was tasked with science goals from looking for evidence of life to manufacturing Oxygen on Mars. But, officials at NASA HQ took the long view and signed on to this ambitious technology: with a very important consideration that the technology demonstration might fail.

Engineering challenge: It is an engineering challenge to fly on Mars: the atmosphere is 1% in density compared to the atmosphere on Earth. To sustain flight, the helicopter blades have to rotate at 2400 rpm (Rotations Per Minute) or about 8 times as fast as a passenger helicopter to fly on Earth. For a helicopter to fly a few metres from the ground on Mars, is equivalent for a helicopter to fly 2-3 times the height of Mt Everest. To provide a context, airplanes like the Boeing 747 fly at 30,000 ft or approximately, the height of Everest. The best fighter jets like the SR-71 of the US Air Force, could fly as high as three times the height of Mt. Everest.

The other challenge is to design a craft that will have its own power, communication and mechanical subsystems with such a small mass budget allocation. Not only did this craft need to attend this high RPM and depend on solar panels for power, Ingenuity also had to survive the very cold Martian night that can be brutal on batteries and the onboard computer.

Ingenuity, Mars In this image from NASA, NASA’s experimental Mars helicopter Ingenuity hovers above the surface of Mars Monday, April 19, 2021. The little 4-pound helicopter rose from the dusty red surface into the thin Martian air Monday, achieving the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. (NASA via AP)

Looking ahead

For Earth, no one knew whether aviation would become widespread and a part and parcel of human life. The first genre of commercial aviation companies did not have much success in the 1920s, in getting people to fly. There was neither the infrastructure nor the demand to turn flying into a mass market business. Aviation as an industry was not for the faint of heart. Some famous Industrialists like Henry Ford entered the sector, got burned and famously exited, after failing to make a cash positive business. Others like India’s JRD Tata survived the tough birth pangs of commercial aviation and went on to run a successful airline company.

There are two ways Ingenuity may or may not change the history of Martian aviation. First, this might spawn multiple missions to test the boundaries of Martian flight and the viability of using Mars helicopters for mission needs. Following Ingenuity, there needs to be a couple of other helicopter missions to further test other engineering questions: most importantly how far can a Martian helicopter fly, how high can it fly, and what is the maximum weight that it can carry? If indeed these distances are significant, can a helicopter be used to transport humans or carry cargo on Mars? We are far enough from that point where we will have answers, but these are some of the questions that will likely be considered as we explore the engineering boundaries of flight on Mars.

Second, what can a small helicopter like Ingenuity do to support a rover mission? Martian rovers can traverse a limited distance every sol. One of the reasons for this is that there is limited information on the proposed route of the rover. High-resolution imagery from orbit supports driving on Mars, but imagery from a helicopter can be of much higher resolution and can be achieved quickly. Imagery from orbit has a much longer turnaround time. Thus, a helicopter should be able to provide better images of hazards along a rover’s route: and this can help in planning a longer drive. Secondly, there are parts of the landscape that rovers cannot reach: maybe a jagged rock or a steep hill or depression. A helicopter could presumably be used to land, do a quick scientific reconnaissance, and even bring back a rock sample for the rover to analyse.

Bottom line

The future of Martian flight opened up on Monday. It is going to be another journey of discovery in the next decade or two as we fine-tune the engineering and the application of Martian helicopters.

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