Fly Barsoom Airlines, They Are Out Of This World
NASA has sent Ingenuity on it’s way to Mars, marking the first attempt for humans to fly an autonomous helicopter on another planet. It is currently tucked into the cargo bay of Perseverance, which launched on July 30th and is scheduled to touch down on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021 so we have a while to wait to find out if this idea will fly.
Deploying a UAV on Mars is quite different than doing so here at home, from figuring out how to safely store it for the launch, six month journey and a landing to designing it to fly in a significantly thinner atmosphere. The legs are tucked up tight to the body, with hinges to allow them to extend on deployment, but they also needed to be able to absorb the shock of it’s own weight upon landing after a flight. As you can see from the picture that is not quite as straightforward as you might first think.
More interesting are the dual rotors designed to deal with an atmosphere so thin the only Earthly equivalent to be found is 35kn above the surface, on a planet with a gravitational pull one third as powerful as what we are used to. Since there is no way to physically simulate that environment on Earth, like the neutral buoyancy water tanks astronauts train in, this was all tested virtually and the first take off will be very interesting to watch if they have successfully predicted the necessities of flight on Mars.
Temperature is another challenge, with temperatures at night frequently hitting -81°F/-62°C but daytime hitting as high as 95 °F/35 °C depending on where you are on the planet; after all Mars has a climate of it’s own. This means when Ingenuity is outside of the plutonium warmed body of Perseverance, NASA needed to find a way to provide heat to the helicopter. Enough radioactive elements to provide the necessary heat would be far too heavy to allow the UAV to fly, so NASA created the Helicopter Warm Electronics Box, which both insulates key components and will capture as much sunlight as possible to replace lost heat.
The news was recently abuzz with stories of how the Mars 2020 mission, which launched from Cape Canaveral at the end of July, had done something that no other spacecraft had done before: it had successfully charged the batteries aboard a tiny helicopter that is hitching a ride in the belly of the Mars 2020 rover, Perseverance.