For the Mars Perseverance mission, NASA scientists decided to try something novel: in addition to sending a rover, they would also send up a small aircraft. The airplane Ingenuity has considerably surpassed expectations, despite being initially intended as a straightforward technological demonstration.
Hard Grip, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California who is the aerodynamics and flight control lead and the chief pilot for the Ingenuity helicopter, said during a press conference during the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, which is taking place this week in Chicago and virtually, “It did such a good job in fact that we even though we originally were meant to fly only up to five times on Mars, we got a new mission.”Now, inventiveness would aid in scouting ahead for the Perseverance rover by surveying the terrain from the air.
In fact, Ingenuity has been so effective that scientists are already preparing to use successor helicopters to investigate Mars and beyond, including how future helicopters could further investigate and even sample the Martian environment and how NASA’s Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan will use a helicopter to assist in our study of an entirely different world.
Although Ingenuity’s maiden flight was simply a 39-second demonstration, it has since scouted for Perseverance and taken in-depth pictures of a Martian outcrop that have helped researchers build a 3D model to investigate the area. In order to offer engineers a useful view of their work on the equipment after it had been used, it also took photographs of Perseverance’s landing equipment.
Before landing on Mars, the Ingenuity team created a pilot’s logbook for the helicopter and included numerous more pages because they believed a five-page logbook would seem ridiculous, according to Grip, who discussed this during the briefing.
“But what’s this? Page count is exhausted “He replied while displaying the book. There are 36 pages in this document, and Ingenuity just completed its 36th flight two days ago.
By creating an aircraft that can gather sample tubes from the Martian surface, NASA researchers want to build on Ingenuity’s accomplishment. Based on Ingenuity’s design, this Mars Sample Return Sample Recovery Helicopter would also have a robotic arm and wheels for terrestrial travel.
The upgrades would allow two of the new helicopters to collect sample tubes, serving as a backup for Perseverance, which is meant to deliver the tubes to the sample-return lander, said Teddy Tzanetos, who is an engineer at JPL, the engineering team lead for Ingenuity and the manager for the new sample recovery helicopters mission, during the briefing.
“We are largely leveraging all of the amazing lessons learned — that we have learned and will continue to learn with ingenuity over the last year and a half,” he said.
NASA will use an aircraft to study other planets besides Mars. A rotorcraft will be used as part of NASA’s Dragonfly mission’s exploration of Saturn’s frozen moon Titan, which is presently targeted for flight in 2027. Titan, the only moon in the solar system with an atmosphere, is perfect for aerial exploration because its gravity is less and its air pressure is half that of Earth’s. Titan is also a very straightforward place to fly. In reality, Dragonfly is roughly the size of the Perseverance rover, or a compact SUV, because flying on Titan is so much simpler than flying on Mars. Ingenuity is smaller than small remote-controlled drones on Earth, being just around 1.6 feet (0.5 meters) tall and 6 inches (15 cm) broad (without its blades).
Elizabeth Turtle, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland and the lead scientist for the Dragonfly project, spoke at the press conference about the several reasons why scientists want to travel to Titan. Titan, according to Turtle, not only has a water-ice crust and liquid methane seas that are similar to the water on Earth, but it also contains an abundance of carbon-rich chemistry that is similar to that of life on Earth.
Researchers will be able to examine this well-known chemistry on Titan in order to determine whether or not specific conditions are habitable and may have supported the emergence of life. Dragonfly will be outfitted with spectrometers, a drill for sample collection, geophysics and meteorological sensors, a camera, and other scientific tools to do this.
“Fundamentally, Dragonfly is a chemistry mission,” Turtle said. “Titan has been doing the kind of chemistry experiments we can’t do here on Earth, because we don’t have millions of years in the laboratory to do them. So Titan has been doing these for us, and Dragonfly is designed to pick up the results of those experiments.”
In the future, aircraft might be used for other crucial planetary exploration tasks. In locations that scientists refer to as “biologically sensitive,” helicopters may collect samples without leaving the same traces and disturbances that a rover would. This could be very crucial. A future Mars Science Helicopter that would resemble Perseverance in size and be able to transport bigger samples and scientific equipment is also being developed by NASA scientists.
“My personal dream is one day we’ll have astronauts at Mars and there’ll be fleets of vehicles zipping around helping the first humans there with simple and complicated tasks,” Tzanetos said. “But it all started with that first 39-second flight that we did about a year and a half ago.”