A flight on Mars

Image – ingenuity.jpg (Image credit: JPL-CALTECH/NASA)

On April 19, United States (US) space agency NASA made history with the Mars helicopter Ingenuity making its first flight over the Red Planet. This is the first time a powered aircraft has flown over the surface of another planet. Since then, the helicopter has made two more short flights. The fourth flight attempt failed. Ingenuity was carried to Mars by Nasa’s Perseverance rover, which touched down in Jezero Crater in mid-February.

All three successful flights so far have been very short test runs to see if the helicopter was working correctly. Ingenuity has been making test flights at a height of five metres above the Martian surface and the longest distance it has covered so far is 50 metres.

Flying over Mars: No easy task

Mars has a very thin atmosphere – its density is just 1% of what we experience on Earth. There is very little air to provide a ‘lift’ to the helicopter. Mars’ force of gravity, which is much lower than that of Earth, helps as there is very little force ‘pulling’ an object down to the ground. Despite this, it is quite a task to get Ingenuity airborne.

To help it get going, the helicopter was made extremely light – 1.8 kg – and its blades can turn super-fast at 2500 revolutions per minute. These blades are also made of extremely lightweight carbon.

Another thing that Ingenuity has to cope with is Mars’ extremely cold nights. Temperatures in the Jezero Crater, where Perseverance has landed, dip to minus 90°C at night, and Ingenuity had to be built so that the cold would not affect it.

Look Ma, no hands!

Given the distance between Mars and Earth (295 million kilometres), signals from Perseverance travel through a relay of satellites before reaching the NASA command centre in the US. It takes 16-and-a-half minutes to send a signal back. As a result, it is not possible to manage Ingenuity from Earth like a remote-controlled toy. So Ingenuity has to fly independently on Mars, and so far, it is doing that very well.

The purpose behind Ingenuity

Ingenuity is a test mission – which means that NASA is using it to try out flights on Mars. If these flights are successful, they could change the way how Mars is explored. Areas that cannot be reached by vehicles like Perseverance that move over ground, could be reached by Ingenuity. It could also help human explorers by scouting (checking out) areas for further exploration.