The Mars Helicopter


The shadow of Ingenuity on Mars, taken from the helicopter on one of its flights, photo by NASA.

Cole Wilson, Journalist

On April 19th, 2021, a small helicopter took to the skies. This wasn’t just any helicopter, no, it was a mars helicopter! The first of its kind to fly on another planet, and the first-ever flying machine on Mars. This helicopter (or drone) has been quite busy!

Ingenuity arrived on Mars with the Perseverance rover. The landing was on February 18th, 2021 on Jezero Crater. Perseverance’s mission is to look for microbial life, either living now or more likely evidence from previous times. Perseverance is also doing sample caching, saving samples to send back to Earth. Though Ingenuity arrived with the rover, it was considered a different mission and one that was not likely to succeed. “The mars helicopter Ingenuity is a very significant technology demonstrator,” says Geoff Nunn, Adjunct Curator for Space History at the Museum of Flight.

However, in mid-April, dreams were realized as the small drone hovered about 3 meters off of the ground for about 30 seconds, before returning back to the martian soil. The engineering that went into this feat is quite amazing! The atmosphere on Mars is significantly thinner than on Earth, so flying machines have to generate a lot more lift, or “push” to take off. Ingenuity has specially designed giant rotors that can overcome this difficulty. “It’s like flying at 80,000 feet, which we just don’t do here on Earth,” says Mrs. Carson, Earth and Space Science teacher at OHS. “They had to make rotors that were incredibly long and incredibly light. So, the engineering alone is really pretty amazing.” This isn’t the only hurdle that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) had to overcome, there is also the significant issue of the distance between Earth and Mars. In order for the helicopter to carry out its mission, the flights can’t be flown with a joystick or by a live person at all. Instead, every flight has to be pre-programmed and planned in advance because of the signal delay.

Ingenuity has successfully made four flights, with each one getting progressively longer and higher than the last. NASA’s agenda for the helicopter will eventually take it on scouting missions for Perseverance, something that has been unable to happen with previous rovers. In the long term, this flight technology will enable scientists and engineers to take similar helicopters to other planets, such as Saturn. “and that has an incredibly dense, toxic atmosphere, but we think that that’s a great place where we see nitrogen-rich environments… and there are a lot of building blocks of life,” says Carson. Other helicopters are likely going to help the rovers as well. “We are able to consider sending operation helicopters or aircraft with future missions that could act like scouts for the rovers,” says Nunn.

While we won’t see Saturn for more than a decade, Ingenuity and Perseverance are taking lots of pictures and videos in the meantime, and learning a bunch about the Red Planet. “I think the more you understand  and see how magical our planet is and everything around us… and also how we can be humbled by the fact we don’t understand how everything in the universe works,” says Mrs. Carson, “It gives us all a greater appreciation of being a human of how great it is being alive.”