NASA’s Tiny Copter
September 6, 2021
It was only meant to fly five times. Despite this, Nasa’s Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, has completed 12 flights and is not ready to retire. The US space agency has extended Ingenuity’s mission indefinitely due to its stunning and unexpected success. The rover Perseverance, whose primary mission is to search for signs of ancient life on Mars, has become a regular travel companion of the tiny helicopter.
“Everything is working so well,” said Josh Ravich, the mechanical engineering team leader at Ingenuity. “On the surface, we’re doing better than we predicted.” Thousands of people worked on various, but only about a dozen are still involved daily. Ravich has been with the team for five years. “When I was offered the chance to work on the helicopter project, I think I had the same reaction as everyone else: ‘Is that even possible?’” His initial skepticism was understandable: The density of the air on Mars is only one percent that of Earth’s atmosphere. Flying a helicopter on Mars would be comparable to flying one in the thin air nearly 20 miles above Earth.
It was also not easy to get to Mars in the first place. Ingenuity had to withstand the initial impact of taking off from Earth, followed by the Feb 18 landing on Mars after a seven-month journey through space tied to the rover’s belly. The tiny (1.8 kilogramme) copter has had to survive the frigid Martian nights by drawing warmth from the solar energy that charge its batteries during the day. Because the 15-minute lag in communications from Earth makes real-time guidance impossible, its flights are guided by an array of sensors.