The success of NASA’s Mars helicopter exploring Martian skies depends on the final five inches

The success of NASA’s Mars helicopter exploring Martian skies depends on the final five inches
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars HelicopterNASA/JPL
  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has a plan for how they will get the Mars helicopter named Ingenuity onto the Red Planet’s surface.
  • Attached to the Perseverance rover’s belly, the fate of the chopper exploring Martian skies will depend on the five inches and a good drop.
  • Here’s a step-by-step look at how NASA plans to deploy the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is doing what no space agency has done before — landing a helicopter on the Red Planet, Mars. If the test flight is successful, it could open the skies on other worlds.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter will travel the first 505 million kilometres attached to the Perseverance rover’s belly but its the final five inches — the distance it will travel from where it’s stowed on the rover to the surface of the Red Planet — that will determine its fate.
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The success of NASA’s Mars helicopter exploring Martian skies depends on the final five inches
Artist's concept of the Mars helicopter flying on the Red PlanetNASA/JPL

It won’t easy since the conditions on Mars are very different from the conditions on Earth. For instance, the air is only 1/100th as dense and the gravity is two-thirds less intense.
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"The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is a large, fragile, unique assemblage of hardware that is dissimilar to anything NASA has ever accommodated on a planetary mission," said Chris Salvo, the helicopter interface lead of the Mars 2020 mission at JPL.

Step one — find an airfield
In order to detach from Perseverance rover and get a bird’s eye view of Mars, the scientists at NASA have come up with the Mars Helicopter Delivery System.

The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter will be deployed around two months after Perseverance lands on the Red Planet on 18 February 2021. In those two months, the rover and helicopters teams back on Earth will be on the lookout for potential airfields when the helicopter can take its first flight.
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The success of NASA’s Mars helicopter exploring Martian skies depends on the final five inches
Artist's concept of a potential airfield for the Mars helicopterNASA/JPL

The ideal target is an area that’s 33 by 33 feet, comparatively flat, obstruction-free and within view of the rover even when it’s parked about a football field away.

Step two — get the rover in position
On the day, the Perseverance rover’s will drop the Mars Helicopter Delivery System's graphite composite debris shield that protected the chopper during landing. It will then drive into the centre of the chosen airfield.

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In another six days, the helicopter and rover teams will ensure that everything’s in place for the Mars Helicopter Delivery System to do its thing.

Step three — getting the Mars helicopter in position
Being attached to the rover’s belly gives the chopper around 26 inches of ground clearance — thrice the amount provided by a typical terrestrial SUV. The Ingenuity helicopter is around 19 inches tall in itself, leaving only five inches in its wake.

The success of NASA’s Mars helicopter exploring Martian skies depends on the final five inches
Mars helicopter attached to the belly of the Perserverance roverNASA/JPL

"That is not a lot of room to play with. But we found if you attach the helicopter horizontally, there is enough to get the job done," said Salvo.
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The deployment process begins with the release of a locking mechanism that keeps the helicopter in place.

Then a cable-cutting pyrotechnic — or a low-explosive — device fires, allowing a spring-loaded arm that holds the helicopter to begin rotating it out of its horizontal position.

The success of NASA’s Mars helicopter exploring Martian skies depends on the final five inches
An engineer observes as a test of the Mars Helicopter Delivery System at Lockheed Martin Space LMS

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The arm is controlled by a small electric motor that will pull on it until it finally gets the helicopter is a vertical position with two of its spring-loaded landing legs deployed.

After that, another pyrotechnic will fire, releasing the other legs.

Step four — deploying the Mars helicopter
If all of the above steps go off without a hitch, mission control on Earth is command the delivery system to release the chopper and it will drop.

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The drop is crucial because if the helicopter doesn’t land on its feet, there won’t be any way for it to get back up.

After mission control confirms that there was a good drop, the Perseverance rover will be asked to drive away so that the Mars helicopter can begin to recharge its batteries using its solar panels.

At this point, Ingenuity’s flight test program begins.

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The tricky part about flying a helicopter on Mars is that taking off from surface is the equivalent of flying at 100,000 feet on Earth. No known helicopter is existence has flown that high — it’s more than twice the height at which typically airlines fly.

SEE ALSO:
The Mars helicopter is cool — a fleet of small, levitating nanocardboard aircraft would be cooler

NASA Has Plans To Fly A Helicopter On Mars
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