Ingenuity: Earth’s helicopter is flying over Mars

100 years ago today, if an ordinary person on Earth had been told that it was possible to fly a controlled helicopter from Mars to Earth, he would have laughed at it, or doubted the mental health of the person who said it. Because then the mission to Mars is far from over, the production of the spacecraft called helicopter has not started on earth. But just 100 years later, the US space agency NASA‘s small unmanned helicopter Ingenuity flew over Mars. On April 19, 2021, Ingenuity flew 3 meters (or 9.8 feet) above the surface of Mars and was able to stay afloat for 39.1 seconds. This is a small step for Ingenuity, but a huge step forward for mankind.

The first image taken by a rover carrying perseverance after landing on Mars; Source: NASA

Ingenuity was able to fly just 3 meters above the surface of Mars and stay afloat for only 39.1 seconds. This does not seem to be an achievement at first glance. The gravitational force of Mars is about one-third of the Earth’s gravitational force, but the density of Mars’ atmosphere is only 1 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere. As a result, it is much more difficult for an airplane to fly to Mars than to Earth.

It is equivalent to being able to fly from the ground of a spacecraft to Mars and reach an altitude of 30,000 meters (or 100,000 feet) above the surface of any spacecraft on Earth. So far, no helicopter on Earth has been able to rise 30,000 meters above the ground. But Ingenuity has been able to fly off the surface of Mars. This is why it is not an ordinary achievement, but a unique achievement in the history of space technology.

Ingenuity’s flight to Mars is practically a ‘technology demonstration’. That is, it is not a complete technology, but an experimental version or prototype of future technology. Based on this prototype, spacecraft capable of flying higher and longer on Mars will be built later. NASA’s plan is to use such automated spacecraft to observe different locations on Mars and determine the trajectory of spacecraft or rovers sent to Mars.

History of the construction of Mars missions and Ingenuity

In the 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union began expeditions to alienation. In 1985, the Soviet spacecraft Vega-1 was able to fly a balloon over Venus and it was the first unpowered flight to an alien planet. Later, however, the Soviet Union somehow dropped out of the project, but the United States continued its mission to Mars. The US space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), adopted the Mars Exploration Program in 1993 and has conducted several missions to Mars since then. The latest of these is ‘Mars 2020’ and the Ingenuity helicopter is part of this operation.

In 2014, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the US defense company Aero Environment made plans to send a scout helicopter with a rover to Mars and to design the helicopter. NASA’s Ames Research Center and Langley Research Center also support research. The project’s executive officer is Dave Lavery, the project manager is Mimi Aung and the chief engineer is Bob Balaram.

Jezero Cave of Mars. The Mars Rover Perseverance, including the Ingenuity, landed here; Source: NASA

By mid-2016, they told the US government they needed 15 million US dollars to build the helicopter. By December 2017, they were testing a model of the helicopter in an artificial Mars environment created by simulation, and also began testing it at the North Pole. But until then, the helicopter has not been included in the Mars 2020 mission, nor has money been allocated for it.

Finally, in March 2018, the US government allocated 23 million for the project. On May 11, 2018, it was announced that it was possible to prepare the helicopter for participation in the Mars 2020 mission. The helicopter was then extensively tested (especially in flight dynamics and environment testing) and in August 2019 it was incorporated into the Mars rover Perseverance.

Note that ‘Mars Rover’ means a vehicle suitable for navigating the land of Mars. The helicopter weighs just 1.8 kilograms and, according to JPL, will be able to fly a total of five times to Mars. NASA has invested a total of about 85 million US dollars to build and operate this helicopter.

During the planning period, the helicopter was called ‘Mars Helicopter Scout’, ‘Mars Helicopter’ or ‘Ginny’. NASA later organized a competition for the official naming of the helicopter, and in April 2020, Vaniza Rupani, a class XI student from Alabama, USA, won the competition. He named the helicopter ‘Ingenuity’.

Ingenuity on Mars

The Mars 2020 mission was launched on July 30, 2020 in an Atlas-5 launch vehicle from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, USA. Mars 2020 includes the Mars Rover ‘Perseverance’ and the unmanned helicopter ‘Ingenuity’. On February 18, 2021, the rover landed in the Jezero cavity on Mars. On March 5, 2021, NASA named the landing site ‘Octavia E. Butler Landing ‘. Renowned American science fiction writer Octavia E. It is named after Butler.

Image of aviation field taken from Genuity; Source: NASA

On April 3, 2021, Ingenuity was dropped from Perseverance. After landing the helicopter, Perseverance moves about 100 meters (or 330 feet) away from it and creates a ‘buffer zone’ in which the helicopter can fly safely. On the same day, the helicopter took a picture of the surface of Mars and sent it to Earth. On April 8, Ingenuity completes a low-speed rotor spin test. At this time the speed of the wings of Ingenuity was 50 revolutions / minute. On April 9, the day after the test was successful, Ingenuity attempted to perform a rapid rotation test, but the test failed due to the expiration of the watchdog timer. Note that the job of this watchdog timer is to protect the helicopter from conducting wrong activities in unforeseen circumstances.

On April 12, NASA authorities announced that they had solved the problem by updating a software. On 17 April Ingenuity successfully performed the ‘fan rotation test’ at full speed. In this experiment, Ingenuity is located on the surface of Mars and is able to rotate its wings at a speed of 2,400 revolutions / minute. Finally, on April 19, the helicopter took off for the first time from the surface of Mars. Its flight time was 39.1 seconds. It is able to rise to a height of about 3 meters, turn 96 degrees as planned and then land. This completes the first powered flight to an alien planet.

Functions performed by Ingenuity during take-off and landing in the figure; Source: NASA

On April 22, Ingenuity flew from the surface of Mars for the second time. This time Ingenuity was able to rise about 5 meters (or 16 feet) above the Wright Brothers field and stay afloat for 51.9 seconds. Then it lands down. The second time Ingenuity was able to rise higher than the first time and stay afloat for longer.

Ingenuity has been automatically regulated during these two short-haul flights, and JPL operators from Earth have planned and operated it in a telerobotic process. According to NASA’s plan, Ingenuity will fly 3 more times from the surface of Mars in 30 solar days. Each time it rises 3–5 m (or 10–16 ft) above the ground and stays in that position for 90 seconds. It will communicate directly with the Perseverance Rover after each landing.

Ingenuity flight on Mars is the first time an airplane or ‘powered flight’ has been taken out of Earth. Naturally, this has ushered in a new era in the history of space exploration. NASA and JPL officials described the flight of Ingenuity as their ‘Wright Brothers moment’. In 1903, the Wright brothers (Wilbur Wright and Orville Wright) were the first to successfully fly a plane around the world. Interestingly, a small portion of the wingcloth of the Wright Brothers’ first aircraft, the Wright Flyer, was attached to a cable under Ingenuity’s solar panel. NASA has dubbed the place from which Ingenuity flew, ‘Wright Brothers Field’.

Structure of Ingenuity

The height of the Ingenuity helicopter is 0.49 meters (or 1 foot 7 inches). Its coaxial rotors are about 1.2 meters (or 4 feet) in diameter and have a speed of 2,400 revolutions / minute. The helicopter is capable of flying from the surface of Mars 1 to 5 times in 30 solar days. (Note that 1 day on Mars = 24 hours 39 minutes 36 seconds) The helicopter can float for a maximum of 90 seconds after takeoff. Its maximum speed is 3 m / s when flying vertically. The battery power used in helicopters is 35–40 watt-hours (or 130–140 kJ).

A diagram of the structure of the ingenuity; Source: NASA

Ingenuity is basically a spacecraft, but it is designed in such a way that it can withstand gravitational forces and vibrations when launched from the earth. It also has a radioactivity-resistant system, which is able to withstand even the coldest weather on Mars. It has a high resolution camera and a communication system to deliver data to the Perseverance Rover. Due to the differences in the magnetic field of Mars, it is not possible to use a compass there, so it uses a solar tracker camera. This camera is integrated with JPL’s visual inertial navigation system.

Ingenuity also has several additional equipment. These include gyroscopes, visual odometers, inclinometers, altimeters and hazard detectors. It is designed to use solar panels to recharge its batteries. For this, 6 Sony Li-ion cells have been used, which have a capacity of 35-40 watts-hours.

The helicopter uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor with Linux operating system. The processor is connected to two flight control microcontroller units. It also carries an IMU and a Garmin Leader Light V3 laser altimeter. Helicopters and rovers have a 900 MHz Ciplex 02 chipset, which allows the helicopter to communicate wirelessly with the rover using the low-capacity ‘ZigBee’ communication protocol. This communication system can provide data up to a distance of 1,000 meters (or 3,300 feet) at a speed of 250 kilobytes / second.

The future

Ingenuity is basically a prototype. On the basis of this, it is expected that a spacecraft suitable for navigation to Mars and other planets will be built later. The next generation helicopters can weigh 5 to 15 kg and have a capacity of 0.5 to 1.5 kg. With the help of these spacecraft, different planets can be observed in detail in the future and suitable places for life can be found in them, such speculations have started now. In fact, the flight of Ingenuity to Mars is a great advancement for mankind.

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