World Records Are Being Set By a Self-Flying Helicopter on Mars

Owing to its sparse atmosphere, the Martian environment is extremely difficult to fly in. Oxygen is present in negligible quantities in the atmosphere, which is made up of 95% carbon dioxide. Only 610 pascals, or 0.006% of Earth’s average atmospheric pressure, are present on the planet. Aircraft rotors and lifting wings are consequently much less efficient. One small helicopter, Ingenuity, has managed to overcome these challenges and set numerous world records.

NASA’s Ingenuity accomplished the first controlled flight on Mars in April of 2021. This was accomplished by ascending to 3 meters, hovering for 30 seconds, then landing. It took 39.1 seconds to complete everything. The helicopter made multiple records with its 25th flight a year later, on April 8, 2022. This contains the most recent, farthest trip across the Jezero crater on Mars, which covered a distance of 704 meters. Additionally, it established new records for flying duration (161.3 seconds) and groundspeed (5.5 meters per second). On December 3, 2022, it ascended to its highest point during a single trip. During this period, it ascended to a height of 14 meters above the surface of Mars, its highest point.

Ingenuity is designed to use two carbon-fiber rotors which spin at about 2,400 rpm to provide lift, unlike helicopters that are located on Earth. A conventional helicopter would take five times longer than this. On Mars, however, this only creates enough thrust to raise an aircraft the size of a flour bag.

Ingenuity’s mass is 1.8 kg, however, in Martian gravity, it only weighs 680 g. Ingenuity is built to fly independently utilizing an onboard computer due to the 5–20 minute communication latency between Earth and Mars. All flight plans are carried out by the onboard computer. Before each flight, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA sent a list of waypoints and landmarks. They are intended to outline the path that Ingenuity must take.

Ingenuity is outfitted with several tools. A navigation camera, a laser range finder, and an inertial measurement unit are among them. These are fed into the onboard computer, enabling it to react to flying conditions in real-time without the need for pre-programmed human input.

Ingenuity’s rotors are susceptible to stopping or losing control because of Mars’s thin air. In order to maintain the stability of the helicopter, the computer must continuously make small control inputs. Software updates and resourceful workarounds were necessary because Ingenuity was initially built to perform brief, straightforward flights over flat terrain. They are intended to protect it because, during its journey, it came across more difficult terrain.

The feasibility of powered flight on Mars was initially a question that dogged the Mars Helicopter project. However, Ingenuity has aced every test, demonstrating that flying through Mars’ thin atmosphere is absolutely possible. The development of future Mars-bound planes will benefit from the lessons learned by Ingenuity, even though it does not include any scientific instruments and cannot reveal much about Mars itself. Its descendants will eventually be able to explore currently inaccessible areas and break even more astounding records.