April 19, 2021, NASA made history by flying a powered, man-controlled helicopter on another planet for the first time. This historic moment followed a long process of engineering, testing, and controls in specially constructed chambers on Earth that simulate the harsh conditions of Mars.
Ingenuity is the first test subject of powered flight on another planet, so building the helicopter brought along many unique challenges. It had to be light and strong, and it also needed to be very powerful to fly in the thin atmosphere of Mars where the atmospheric density can drop down to only 1% of Earth’s. Light and strong are areas of expertise for TeXtreme®, and Ingenuity has TeXtreme® fabric in its solar panel substrate, the box at the bottom, and the rotor blades.
The main challenge for the development team at NASA/JPL/AeroVironment was to find a fabric that was just thick enough to provide the stiffness required to lift the helicopter, but also lightweight enough as to not waste any energy. After searching for a thin, stiff and ultra-light solution they found TeXtreme®, and they worked with our engineering team to find the optimal version of TeXtreme® for these unique challenges. By using one of the thinnest versions of TeXtreme® the team was able to design the wings in an optimal way and ultimately fly in the brutal conditions of Mars.
The helicopter weighs in at only 1.8 kg—on Earth, that is. On Mars it only weighs about 680 grams. The blade span is 1.2 m and is made from TeXtreme® carbon fiber and foam core which enables lift in the thin atmosphere. It´s equipped with solar panel charged Lithium-ion batteries that provide enough energy for one 90 second flight per Martian day. The box at the bottom contains the helicopter’s “brain” composed of sensitive electronics that the box is constructed to keep warm in the cold Mars climate.
The drone is serving as a technology demonstration for the potential use of flying probes on future missions to Mars and other worlds. For the first flight Ingenuity took off, climbed up to 3 meters, hovered for a while, completed a turn and then it landed safely on the ground. It then proceeded to test longer flights further up in the air with great results. With the tech demo phase complete, Ingenuity began a new operations demonstration phase to explore how rovers and aerial explorers can work together in the future.
Ingenuity turned out to be brilliantly engineered and has to this day completed 16 flights. Another big breakthrough came on September 15th when it completed a high-speed test at 2800rpm, which is necessary for flight in Mars’ Autumn and Winter when the air density drops down to 0.012 kg/m3 (only 1% of earth’s gravity).
The Mars helicopter has turned out to be a great success and has delivered NASA even more data than had been hoped for. This information is crucial in the development of rovers and aerial explorers for future explorations of other worlds. Ingenuity is just the beginning, and we are eagerly waiting to see what the future brings.