From the editor's desk: The little helicopter that could

March 2024 News

Kim Roberts, Editor.

The thrill of space exploration captures our imagination. I‘ve been following NASA’s Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter with fascination as these tiny vehicles pushed the boundaries of scientific achievement. So I was saddened to find out that after three years, 72 flights and 17 kilometres flown, we have to say goodbye to Ingenuity. The little helicopter’s mission is at an end after it lost a rotor blade during a hard landing.

The Perseverance rover touched down on Mars in 2021 after travelling 480 million kilometres on its six-month journey. This was the most difficult Mars landing ever attempted. For the first time ever, NASA captured video of a rover landing on the surface of Mars after dropping down at 1500 km/h. It also captured audio of the wind whistling past on the ground. Perseverance topped this off by clicking a selfie using a camera on the end of its robotic arm.

Ingenuity, a small, 1,8 kg solar-powered autonomous drone, made the journey to Mars strapped underneath Perseverance. The goal was to test powered flight in the thin Martian atmosphere that has a density only 1% of Earth. The blades on a rotorcraft have very little to bite into to gain lift, so Ingenuity was fitted with contra-rotating rotors made of carbon fibre rotors. They sat on top of one another and spun in opposite directions at about 2400 rpm, five times as fast as helicopter rotors on Earth. The goal was to gather data on new terrain too dangerous for the rover.

In an achievement on a par with the Wright brothers’ first flight, Ingenuity tested the limits. It achieved the first powered, controlled flight by an aircraft on another planet. Even one flight with a crash landing would have been a success, by showing it could get through the launch, charge itself on the way, and survive the entry into the Mars atmosphere, descent and landing. But Ingenuity surpassed all expectations with a series of increasingly daring flights. It was designed to survive for 30 days and fly a total of five missions. Anything else would be a bonus. Instead, it kept going for three years and flew a total of 72 missions and 17 kilometres, giving NASA’s scientists undreamed of access to landscapes previously unseen. The Wright Brothers’ first successful flight lasted 12 seconds.

Ingenuity showed that it could rise 5 metres, hover, tilt by generating thrust with its rotors, move sideways, turn, and return to its position while snapping photos of the Martian surface along the way. It was able to explore difficult terrain from above, study large regions faster than a rover, and carry out reconnaissance, massively expanding the horizons for future Mars missions.

Meanwhile, Perseverance’s main purpose is to search for fossils of ancient microbes. It’s busy taking rock samples, and storing them for a future spacecraft to retrieve and bring back to Earth. The goal is to characterise the planet’s geology and past climate, and pave the way for human exploration. It‘s also looking for organic materials, and analysing any minerals that could show possible signs of life.

It’s packed with cameras, sensors and testing equipment. It can handle tools to take microscopic images and analyse the composition of Martian rocks and soil. Its special drill can penetrate the Mars surface to collect samples using a robotic arm and hand. The Mars atmosphere is 96% CO2, and the list of firsts includes converting this into oxygen at a rate of six grams an hour. This is the first step in fuelling rockets that can lift astronauts off the surface and provide breathable air. Astronauts spending a year on the surface would use about a ton.

The new technology will pay off down here too, with innovations like a sensor that can identify bacteria in a wound, an advanced geology drill bit, and Doppler Lidar for autonomous cars – not to mention unbreakable tyres with shape memory, and wear-repairing super-lubricants (there’s no way to give a rover an oil change on Mars).

While Ingenuity’s mission is sadly over, Perseverance is only now getting to the most exciting part so far. It’s exploring an area on the edge of Jezero Crater with strong signatures of carbonate minerals. While it’s sad to be leaving Ingenuity behind, the future is bright for Perseverance.

The essence of our nature is exploration and discovery. When we explore other planets we can be grateful for our place on Earth, and learn about our place in the universe and about pushing the limits. Who knows what more the expedition will find? I’m looking forward to lots more.


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