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Helicopters on Mars
Hugh Bollinger

Helicopters on Mars

Graphic interpretation of the Ingenuity on Mars (credit: JPL/Caltech/NASA)

In mid-April 2021, the Ingenuity helicopter took to the Martian skies for the first flight of any aircraft on another planet. It was similar to another day, a when the first piloted aircraft flew on Earth.

According to the project managers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California: Ingenuity was its own Wright Brothers moment. It rose a few feet upwards in Jezero Crater; hovered briefly; made a turn, and descended back to land all in the thin Martian air. Its 'first flight' ushered in mobility for exploring Mars from above.

So far, the helicopter's accomplishments have included: it has been on the surface of Mars, separated from the Perseverance rover, for over 500 Martian days, well beyond its original 30 day trial, and it survived a brutal winter it was never designed for. The 4-pound copter has made 33 flights; completed nearly an hour of flight time; traversed over 4 miles of distance; captured nearly 4000 camera images including 200 Hi-Res color photos; and has proven its abilities as a scout for the Lab's scientists and the Perseverance destination drivers. When its latest software update is completed, Ingenuity will have the capacity for advanced navigation that will allow it to fly safely up the steep terrain of the crater's ancient river delta. This will assist the rover as it searches for signs of past life on Mars at the solidified structure.

Ingenuity's successes unfolded with an initial phase of scouting followed by targeted science using the rover's instruments. The JPL investigators followed the 4R's: Reach, Range, Resolution, and Robotics.

Reach: Helicopters are uniquely able to reach locations inaccessible to larger vehicles.

They can fly over terrain not traversable by a wheeled vehicle. Ingenuity easily flew over sand dune fields which would have trapped the rover. Copters can get close and hover next to features like crater walls and enter subsurface, hollow, lava tubes. Due to their low weight, future missions carrying a helicopter could drop the scout during descent for the final part of its entry to land by itself. This expands the possibility for targeting remote locations like the Martian highlands for true global access to Mars.

Range: Aerial vehicles can cover more distance.

Ingenuity was intended as a technology demonstration with limited flight capabilities. With what has been learned from it first flights, future helicopters will be designed with 10 times the distance capacity allowing exploration of wider areas on Mars. Whether it is the Martian polar ice caps or epic flights inside the Grand Canyon of Mars (Valles Marineris), larger helicopters will make such aerial journeys possible.

Resolution: An important capability.

Mars has been monitored from orbit and at higher resolution from landed rovers in only a few locations. Helicopters provide for planet-wide, HiRes, observation capabilities. Future missions carrying multiple cameras and science instruments will view landscape features in far greater detail from hovering at a distance of a few feet to landing in a specific spot for an even closer look.

Robotics: the fourth element of flexibility.

New, high-capacity, micro-processors will enable future helicopters to have greater autonomy and flying mobility, and actual manipulation capacity if a robotic arm is attached. When Mars helicopters are outfitted with such devices they can be deployed to remote locations to perform wider activities leading to novel ways of doing science and technology demonstrations on the Red Planet.

Mars exploration is still in its infancy. Lewis and Clark were tasked with exploring and mapping the newly acquired American territories, establish a presence, and perform science and economic assessments. Ingenuity and its descendants will further the same objectives of exciting exploration.

There is much to learn about Mars as Ingenuity's first flights have shown. WHB

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