Exploring Mars with the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter

A series of articles in AAPG EXPLORER has been following the progress of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover since its launch on July 30, 2020. Perseverance landed in Jezero Crater on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021 with an EXPLORER Live! panel and audience. Perseverance has been performing systems checks, executed its first drives, and zapped a few rocks for analysis with its SuperCam laser. Now we have witnessed the deployment of the Ingenuity helicopter for the first-in-history aerial, powered flight on another planet. Since landing, Perseverance has tested its new wheels on a winding course with about 900 feet of wheel tracks from where it landed to its current location monitoring Ingenuity.

Ingenuity is a small coaxial, drone rotorcraft. It is about half a meter high and weighs only 4 pounds. It has the potential to scout geologic locations of interest and to help plan routes for Mars rovers. The helicopter is capable of delivering terrain images ten times sharper than orbital images.

The difficulty of lift in an atmosphere 1/100 as dense as Earth’s is only partially offset by Mars’ gravity being one-third that of Earth. The helicopter’s contra-rotating, carbon fiber, coaxial rotor blades are about 1.2 meters in diameter and rotate at 2400 rpm to achieve lift in the thin atmosphere.

Image Caption

Ingenuity deployed and the rover rolls back. Preflight checks underway. NASA/JPL/Caltech.

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A series of articles in AAPG EXPLORER has been following the progress of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover since its launch on July 30, 2020. Perseverance landed in Jezero Crater on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021 with an EXPLORER Live! panel and audience. Perseverance has been performing systems checks, executed its first drives, and zapped a few rocks for analysis with its SuperCam laser. Now we have witnessed the deployment of the Ingenuity helicopter for the first-in-history aerial, powered flight on another planet. Since landing, Perseverance has tested its new wheels on a winding course with about 900 feet of wheel tracks from where it landed to its current location monitoring Ingenuity.

Ingenuity is a small coaxial, drone rotorcraft. It is about half a meter high and weighs only 4 pounds. It has the potential to scout geologic locations of interest and to help plan routes for Mars rovers. The helicopter is capable of delivering terrain images ten times sharper than orbital images.

The difficulty of lift in an atmosphere 1/100 as dense as Earth’s is only partially offset by Mars’ gravity being one-third that of Earth. The helicopter’s contra-rotating, carbon fiber, coaxial rotor blades are about 1.2 meters in diameter and rotate at 2400 rpm to achieve lift in the thin atmosphere.

Ingenuity is equipped with inertial sensors, a laser altimeter, two navigational cameras and a communication system to relay data to the Perseverance rover. The downward-looking navigational cameras are high-resolution cameras for navigation, landing and science-surveying of the terrain.

Deployment

Ingenuity Mars helicopter chief engineer Bob Balaram explained deployment to The Robot Report, “The (Ingenuity) debris shield is jettisoned using a pyrotechnic cable cutter, then the helicopter moves into the actual drop spot.”

“Then there is a cable cutter, which lets Ingenuity swing down towards vertical ... So once we are vertical, the same process releases two of our landing legs. There is another final cable cutter, which releases the remaining two landing legs. We then ask the rover to charge our lithium ion batteries to a full 100-percent charge because we want to make sure that we survive overnight if needed as the rover drives off. Until our solar panels are exposed, we don’t get charge into our helicopter.”

Ingenuity was successfully deployed from Perseverance to the surface of Mars from March 28 to April 7, 2021 (Sol 38-47).

Flight Course and Flight Plans

After deployment, Ingenuity’s rotor blades were tested. Ingenuity’s first flight was originally planned for April 8 but a “command sequence issue was identified on Sol 49 (April 9) during a planned highspeed spin-up test of the helicopter’s rotors,” according to a press statement issued by NASA.

A complex flight software solution will be programmed and tested on Earth and then uploaded to Mars so that Ingenuity can boot up the new flight software.

The Ingenuity helicopter is planned to fly five times during its planned 30- day test period. The test flights will be at altitudes ranging from 10–16 feet above the ground, lasting up to 90 seconds per flight, and ranging as far as 160 feet before returning to its launch area. Ingenuity will use autonomous control programmed by operators at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Images and telemetry will be relayed to the Perseverance rover after each flight.

Perseverance will attempt to document Ingenuity’s flights. “We plan to use our video capability and our telephoto capability,” Perseverance Mastcam-Z principal investigator Jim Bell of Arizona State University said. “It’ll be very exciting, and we’re looking forward to those historic, aviation-first kind of movies.”

After Ingenuity’s debut, Perseverance will begin geologic exploration of Jezero Crater. Perseverance JPL project scientist Ken Farley said, “The mission team has already mapped out a tentative traverse, which would take the rover through the delta region, up onto Jezero’s rim and onto the plains beyond the crater.”

The rover will look for signs of possible past life in Jezero crater’s geology, where there is evidence that a lake existed 3.5 billion years ago. River channels filled the crater, created a lake and deposited deltaic sediments. The rover’s instruments will test the geochemistry of crater sediments to select samples to be drilled, cached and returned to Earth by 2031 on a separate mission.