JPL’s Ingenuity craft is making history on the Red Planet
It was long before the pandemic — May 19, 2019, to be exact — and fans of outer space were looking up and beyond to Mars.
Others and this writer stood in a long line at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the Pasadena area to get a glimpse at the next spacecraft that was going to land on the Red Planet. During this open house, a JPL engineer was all smiles as she talked to us while we waited in line outside a building and a large room that is kept clean of any particles. We would go upstairs and look through the clean room’s window at the craft.
Outside the building, the engineer raved about what the spacecraft would carry: Mars’ first helicopter.
In fact, it would be humanity’s first helicopter on any planet beyond Earth.
The helicopter, named Ingenuity, was on the belly of the Perseverance rover, which has roamed over Mars since landing on Feb. 18 in the Jezero Crater. On April 3, the rover released the helicopter.
The 19-inch high craft, which is equipped with computers and navigation sensors, has completed its technology demonstration after three successful flights. For its first flight on April 19, Ingenuity climbed to about 10 feet, hovered in the air, made a turn and landed.
And the helicopter, which is equipped with one color camera and one black-and-white camera, got a shot of Perseverance during its flights from 16 feet in the air and 279 feet away.
Ingenuity is transitioning to its operations demonstration stage to explore what helicopters and rovers can do together.
JPL noted Ingenuity and other future helicopters on Mars could provide views not provided by the current orbiters far above Mars or by rovers and landers on the ground. The aircraft could provide high-definition images and reconnaissance for robots or humans. They might even carry light but important payloads from one site to another.
And a helicopter can go where rovers can’t.
So far, Ingenuity is doing well for a pioneering spacecraft on another planet. It has flown around 4 miles per hour and gone distances such as half a football field, according to media reports.
JPL described Ingenuity as a 4-pound craft designed for experimental flight tests. It isn’t carrying any science instruments. It’s on Mars to demonstrate rotorcraft flight in a very thin atmosphere.
JPL explained further that Ingenuity is “the first aircraft humanity has sent to another planet to attempt powered, controlled flight.”
And JPL has compared Ingenuity to the Wright brothers’ Flyer.
That’s a lot of pressure for any pioneer, but Ingenuity has proven it’s up to the task.
After all, it was designed to succeed. JPL noted the rotor blades are light and are much larger and spin much faster than what would be required for a helicopter of the same mass on Earth.
And Ingenuity gets some help from Mars, where the gravity is about one-third of that on Earth.
What’s more, Ingenuity can think for itself.
JPL designed the helicopter to make some of its own decisions, based on parameters set by engineers on Earth. During its flight, Ingenuity has analyzed sensor data and images of the terrain to make sure it stays on its flight path, which was programmed by project engineers.
It’s an exciting time for fans of helicopters on Mars and of JPL in general. NASA hasn’t announced when JPL could resume its free, annual open houses, which became so popular that you needed to reserve a time slot in advance. But this writer can tell you, based on going to many of the open houses, that the JPL open house is the best way to explore the solar system and the galaxy in a single day.