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Muhammed Yılmaz

Exploring Mars Inch By Inch With An Autonomous Helicopter!

Issue 9 - 2021
Exploring Mars Inch By Inch With An Autonomous Helicopter!

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) takes pride in embracing an accomplishment beyond its expectations. NASA has been dreaming about reaching this achievement for a long time. The autonomous helicopter Ingenuity has been exploring every inch of the red planet Mars. Ingenuity’s production lasted for six years and to date, nine successful flights have been conducted as part of the project that originally aimed to execute five flights in the beginning. Each new success has been taking the targets to a higher level. Thanks to this project, a remarkable amount of know-how on a place other than our planet has been acquired. Live sound recording from Mars was achieved as well. Any news from the excursion will enhance this success and advance exploration of the remaining planets. 

Why the flight by Ingenuity is a big deal

Ingenuity’s flight on Mars was recorded as the first successful flight of an air vehicle manufactured on the Earth, at an extraneous planet. This accomplishment clearly reveals the threshold achieved.

Ingenuity is a solar-powered rotorcraft air vehicle with twin propellers and a metal fuselage and four landing legs. It weighs slightly less than two kilograms. It was launched to fulfil a single mission in February with NASA’s Perseverance Mars exploration vehicle: Proving that it can fly at the Martian atmosphere that is very different from Earth’s atmosphere!

Mars’ gravity is much lower than Earth’s gravity though density of the Martian atmosphere is equal to merely 1% of the density of our planet’s atmosphere. Due to such low levels of density, it is much harder for an air vehicle to generate lift. Therefore, the engineers who designed Ingenuity installed 122 cm long rotor blades that can spin at a speed higher than the speed enabling an aircraft to fly on Earth. Many helicopters and unmanned air vehicles on earth feature rotors with nearly 400-500 rpm; Ingenuity’s rotor on the other hand features 2.400 rpm.

What Happened in the First Five Mars Flights?

Prior to its launch to Mars, Ingenuity has been tested on Earth with various simulations where it can generate lifts under the challenging conditions of Martian atmosphere. During Ingenuity’s first flight dated April 19, 2021, the aircraft rose nearly 3 m, hovered for 30 seconds, there it rotated for 96 degrees, then returned and landed. Transmission of the signal to initiate the flight caused delays due to the distance between the Earth and Mars. The signals reached a satellite dish via the computer on Earth, then to the Mars Explorer and to Perseverance and finally to the helicopter. Optimizing this system has not been easy at all. 

The first data received from Mars included black and white images captured by the cameras installed over Ingenuity and the images confirmed the realization of a successful flight. In the initial flight, Ingenuity was airborne for 39 seconds. NASA and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) officially identified Ingenuity’s first flight site as Mars’ first runway and named it as the Wright Brothers Field after the founders of modern aviation.

 The second flight with more challenging missions lasted approximately 52 seconds. Climbing 5 meters up in the flight, Ingenuity managed to fly 2 meters laterally before landing and rotated around its own axis to capture a panoramic view with its camera.

During its third flight, Ingenuity once again climbed up 5 meters and managed to fly at a total range of 50 meters. In this 80-second flight, the air vehicle reached a top speed of 2 meters per second. NASA strived to enhance Ingenuity’s capabilities by adding new instructions for capturing more photos through its internal color camera. 

The first attempt for Ingenuity’s fourth flight failed due to a technical problem. The helicopter could not properly switch to the “flight mode” required for the take-off. The problem was linked with a technical fault with a 15% probability. 

The second trial took place a few days later and the flight was conducted smoothly as planned. Ingenuity climbed to five meters again. Flying to nearly 133 meters south, the air vehicle returned to its take-off position and realized a successful landing. During the fourth flight test, total endurance of Ingenuity was 117 seconds – the longest flight to that date. In this flight, Ingenuity managed to transmit a series of color images with black and white photos captured via the navigation camera under the helicopter. 

Compared to the previous flights, the helicopter recorded much more images in the fourth flight and took nearly 60 photos, mostly at the last 50 meters before landing. Capturing such images constitute a “technical challenge” for Ingenuity as the Red Planet’s images that have never been seen before were achieved from the air. These images were used for examining the surface characteristics of the field and they enabled the capacity to build 3D images of the surface and examining the height of the different zones beneath the helicopter. 

Live Sound Recording from Mars 

Ingenuity shared the first sound recording from the skies of Mars in its fifth test flight. The sound recording by the SuperCam microphone was registered as the first sound recording achieved while flying on another planet.

NASA officials were not sure whether the microphone placed 80 meters away from the Ingenuity’s take-off and landing spot could save the sound of the rotorcraft rotating at 2.537 revolutions per minute under the stormy Martian atmosphere. However, the scientists did not only manage to record the sound but also isolated the sounds from the noise of the wind. 

The helicopter took-off from the Jezero Crater, also known as the Wright Brothers Field, and flew 129 meters south. Then it ascended to a new record of 10 meters to examine and take the photos of its surrounding and the field beneath it. Ingenuity was airborne for a total of 108 seconds during the fifth test flight. 

Thanks to the data collected by Ingenuity, NASA generated digital elevation maps. These maps seem to suggest a completely flat terrain with almost no obstructions. According to NASA, the fifth test flight signals that Ingenuity has passed a critical milestone for its new operations.

Ingenuity’s Flights Surprised NASA

NASA did not expect Ingenuity to remain healthy after the fifth test flight, upon observing the successful operations NASA decided to carry out testing the top limits of the helicopter’s capabilities. Therefore, with its accomplishments, Ingenuity managed to surprise even the team in charge of its operations. 

The eighth flight conducted on June 21 lasted 7,4 seconds in total. Mars helicopter vertically climbed to 10 meters and laterally flew for 160 meters before successfully landing at a brand new landing spot named “Airfield E” by NASA. Ingenuity landed 135 meters away from Perseverance that is critical for sending the helicopter programming data and commands and achieved another milestone. 

The ninth flight at the Red Planet on July 5, 2021 has been regarded as the “most challenging” flight so far. However, Ingenuity also completed this test successfully. The helicopter had to struggle against the tough field conditions and sand storms as it flew over the eastern part of Mars’ Séítah region and accomplished this high risk flight. Ingenuity skillfully reassured the concerns regarding its reach at the targeted landing field and its landing at the accurate spot. 

Flying for a total of 166,4 seconds during this flight, Ingenuity reached its longest endurance. The helicopter also achieved a maximum speed of 5 meters per second, which is regarded as an impressive success for an air vehicle travelling in the thin Martian atmosphere. Ingenuity was instructed to fly for a total of 625 meters over a more textured terrain that the helicopter was quite unfamiliar with. Thanks to this successful flight, close-up images of the Séítah field (which could not have been captured otherwise) have been received and some of the mysteries about Mars have been uncovered. 

What will Ingenuity's New Missions Be? 

After each successful flight, Ingenuity expects new instructions and assignments via the Perseverance Rover from the command center at NASA. Rover carries Ingenuity’s communication base station. That’s why the proximity of Perseverance and Ingenuity was of critical importance in the beginning. Thanks to this rotorcraft active in Mars, NASA will focus on identifying which of the capabilities among reconnaissance, surveillance, access to areas out of access and stereo imaging from atmospheric altitudes could be achieved. Such operations and the lessons-learnt from them are considered to provide remarkable advantages in the future in the aerial reconnaissance of Mars and other planets.

In conclusion, the autonomous helicopter Ingenuity will continue to explore the red planet as it carries out breaking its own records in the range, endurance and ground speed areas while we follow its explorations…

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