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By Doug Millard on

Flying on Mars

Today, NASA was able to successfully fly a small helicopter on Mars. Space curator Doug Millard explores this historical moment.

The little Ingenuity helicopter that has flown on Mars is not the first aerial vehicle sent to another planet.

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter on the Martian surface. NASA/JPL-Caltech.

In 1986 the Soviet Vega mission released a balloon at Venus. It was blown through the dense and very nasty Venusian air (full of sulphuric acid!) for hours, gathering information, data readings and measurements on its way. But Ingenuity is the first powered flight on an alien word.

Russian “Vega” balloon mission to the atmosphere of Venus on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian Institution. Geoffrey A. Landis, 2011.

Ingenuity – named by school student Vaneeza Rupani – is a drone but, despite its simple appearance, is remarkably sophisticated. Because the Martian air is so thin (the atmospheric pressure at the surface of the planet is less than 1% of Earth’s) the helicopter’s blades are large for its size and have to spin astonishingly quickly – 2,400 revolutions per minute.

School student Vaneeza Rupani named the helicopter ‘Ingenuity’. NASA/JPL-Caltech

These design features are necessary to provide the necessary lift in the rarefied atmosphere. The planet does help in another way, however. With Mars gravity being one third of Earth’s – Ingenuity weighs just 1.8 kg there – about the same as a bag of sugar – even though it weighs three times more on Earth.

A test run of Ingenuity’s rotors spins them very slowly. NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA has sent Ingenuity to Mars to test the feasibility of reconnoitring the Martian surface from the air. This will be far quicker than by rover, meaning that surface features of interest to the scientists can be spotted quicky and the rover then sent to analyse them in detail.

Ingenuity’s first image taken from the air shows its own shadow on the surface of Mars. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Of particular interest will be those surfaces and rocks that appear to have been exposed to water in the past. We know that Mars was once as wet as Earth meaning life might have evolved there too and could have left evidence for the Perseverance rover’s instruments to unlock.

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover’s selfie alongside the Ingenuity helicopter. NASA/JPL

Ingenuity will fly autonomously using sets of information sent previously from Earth and gathered itself from the air with its instruments and cameras. Remote control from Earth is impossible because of the time it takes for radio signals to reach Mars. The delay can be as much as twenty minutes, depending on the distance between the two planets’ at the time.

The information Ingenuity gathers will be sent down to the Perseverance rover and thence via spacecraft orbiting Mars back to Earth. The helicopter may be small and its flights relatively short, but their success may transform the way we go about exploring Mars – by Robot or by astronaut – in the future.

As MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager said, and thinking about the first powered flight here on Earth in 1903, ‘We’ve been talking for so long about our Wright Brothers’ moment on Mars, and here it is.’