NASA just had a Wright Flyer moment by accomplishing the first Mars flight with its Ingenuity helicopter drone. And it wasn´t all that easy.
This little drone is actually just a proof of concept. If NASA is to have probes flying around on other planets, it’s better to send a simple one as a secondary mission, rather than spending a lot of money on something that might not work at all.
As it turned out, Perseverance had a little spare space on its belly to be able to accommodate this small experiment.
First Mars Flight – The Marcian Wright Flyer Moment
After a test abort and an over-the-air (space?) update, NASA was finally able to get Ingenuity to make a short hop, much like the first powered flight on Earth.
This wasn’t actually the first man-made device to use lift/propulsion to change its position/path. In fact, Perseverance’s capsule could change pitch slightly to adjust its Mars atmosphere entry. Also, the landing rig had thrusters to allow for a soft ground approach and fly away after descent cable cutoff.
However, this was the first time that a stationary object on Mars’ surface uses its own means to achieve free flight. As far as we know, anyway. (I don’t want to say “aliens”, but…)
Hurdles of The First Flight
So, flying on Mars is not a walk in the park.
Mars has roughly 1/3 of Earth’s gravity. However, its atmosphere is about 1/100 of Earth’s density. That means that NASA had to develop a double rotor blade system that could rotate at 2400 RMP, contrasting with the 400-500 RPM of your garden variety helo. In fact, JPL didn’t test the rotor above 75 RPM on Earth because the 1.2 meters (4 feet) long blades would probably destroy themselves by the lift generated.
Additionally, Ingenuity had to be a fairly small project. There was only about 1.8kg (~4 lbs) to pack whatever was needed to power, lift and navigate this little guy. Amongst other things, this meant that Ingenuity would not run on a nuclear power source as Perseverance does. It has a small battery and a tiny solar panel on the top. This only allows some relatively short hops at a time. To makes things worse, it needs to save some juice to keep the battery from freezing overnight. They tend to not come back to life after such an event. So, people from JPL got a bit apprehensive on the first night after Ingenuity got detached from the rover. Let’s not forget how the Opportunity rover ended up – dust on the solar panels leading to hibernation and no subsequent wakey-wakey.
(Tangent camera: Wouldn’t it be sweet if Ingenuity could dock with Perseverance and recharge after every flight? You know, like that little drone from Blade Runner’s car. I guess we’re not there yet.)
P.S. How cool is JPL for fixing the drone via an OTA update. I mean, you can’t even update your car’s firmware without physically going to the dealership. Unless you own a Tesla or something fancy like that.