Ingenuity is a small coaxial, drone rotorcraft, which will serve as a technology demonstrator for the potential use of flying probes on other worlds, with the potential to scout locations of interest and support the future planning of driving routes for Mars rovers.
What makes it hard for a helicopter to fly on Mars? For one thing, Mars’ thin atmosphere makes it difficult to achieve enough lift. Because the atmosphere of Mars is only about 1⁄100 as dense as that of Earth at surface level, it is much harder for an aircraft to generate lift, a difficulty only partially offset by Mars’ lower gravity (about a third of Earth’s). Liftoff from Mars’ surface has been described as equivalent to flying at 30,000 m above Earth, an altitude that has never been reached by existing helicopters. All this implies — Ingenuity has to be light, with rotor blades that are much larger and spin much faster than what would be required for a helicopter of Ingenuity’s mass on Earth.
It can also be bone-chillingly cold at Jezero Crater, where Perseverance will land with Ingenuity attached to its belly in February 2021. Nights there dip down to minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius). While Ingenuity’s team on Earth has tested the helicopter at Martian temperatures and believes it should work on Mars as intended, the cold will push the design limits of many of Ingenuity’s parts.
In addition, flight controllers at JPL won’t be able to control the helicopter with a joystick. Communication delays are an inherent part of working with spacecraft across interplanetary distances. Commands will need to be sent well in advance, with engineering data coming back from the spacecraft long after each flight takes place. In the meantime, Ingenuity will have a lot of autonomy to make its own decisions about how to fly to a waypoint and keep itself warm.
Ingenuity is intended to demonstrate technologies needed for flying in the Martian atmosphere. If successful, these technologies could enable other advanced robotic flying vehicles that might be included in future robotic and human missions to Mars. They could offer a unique viewpoint not provided by current orbiters high overhead or by rovers and landers on the ground, provide high-definition images and reconnaissance for robots or humans, and enable access to terrain that is difficult for rovers to reach.
“The Ingenuity team has done everything to test the helicopter on Earth, and we are looking forward to flying our experiment in the real environment at Mars,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager at JPL. “We’ll be learning all along the way, and it will be the ultimate reward for our team to be able to add another dimension to the way we explore other worlds in the future.”