Ingenuity Mars helicopter will be ‘pushed to limit’ on test flights, Nasa says

Laura Parnaby, PA
·4-min read

Nasa scientists who successfully executed the first controlled flight on another planet said the Ingenuity Mars helicopter will be “pushed to the limit” during future tests.

Asked during a post-flight press conference if Nasa wants its helicopter to crash to show it has tested the full range of its capabilities, MiMi Aung, the project manager at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said she expects it will “meet its limit”.

Nasa’s Ingenuity Mars miniature helicopter completed the first powered, controlled flight on another planet on Monday, and will attempt to complete four more test flights involving further distances and higher altitudes in the next two weeks.

The news of its historic first successful flight, which involved hovering in the air around 10 feet above the surface of the red planet, was met by cheers and applause at mission control in the early hours of Monday morning.

US President Joe Biden praised Nasa’s team, saying the success of the mission proves “anything is possible”.

He said on Twitter: “NASA proved once again that with relentless determination and the power of America’s best minds, anything is possible.”

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During Nasa’s press conference on Monday, Ms Aung said she got “goose bumps” while watching footage of the helicopter’s first successful flight.

She said: “It looks just the way we tested in our space simulator chamber, an absolutely beautiful flight…

“Our team has been working over six years towards our dream of experimenting the first ever flight on Mars, and this morning our dream came true.”

She added: “We do want it to be pushed to the limit.

“Ultimately, because going faster, further, our models match what we saw in our flight chamber, but we want to push against the wind, we want to push against the speed, and ultimately we expect the helicopter will meet its limit.

“This is about finding unknowns that we can’t model, and we really want to know what the limits are, so we will be pushing the limits very deliberately.”

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Mars Helicopter’s chief engineer Bob Balaram said he envisaged a helicopter 15 times heavier than the 1.8kg Ingenuity being able to fly on the planet in the coming years.

He said: “We are thinking of things in the 25 to 30 kilogram class, which is about 50 pounds, and those vehicles would carry about four kilograms of science instruments.

“Early design work on that has started to see what it would take to deploy these and operate them… but anything much larger, the packaging of the blades becomes quite awkward, so it may not be quite feasible in the near-term.”

Standing just 50cm tall, the helicopter weighs 1.8kg on Earth, but is a mere 0.68kg on Mars because of the red planet’s lower gravity, and can fly for 90 seconds at a time.

Steve Jurczyk, Nasa’s acting administrator, heralded the flight as “the start of a whole new kind of planetary exploration”.

He told the conference: “This really is a Wright Brothers moment.

“It’s the start of a whole new kind of planetary exploration and we’ll build our engineering success to see how we can deploy this capability on future Mars missions.”

The Ingenuity Mars helicopter (Nasa/PA)
The Ingenuity Mars helicopter (Nasa/PA)

Ingenuity’s chief pilot Havard Grip also shared the news that the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has assigned a three-letter designator for the helicopter – IGY-1 – and its location has been officially noted as JZRO, for Jezero Crater.

Ingenuity arrived at the Jezero Crater on February 18 after an eight-month journey spanning nearly 300 million miles, tucked inside the belly of Nasa’s Perseverance rover.

After the spacecraft landed, it dropped the drone on to the ground so Ingenuity could prepare for its maiden flight.

It is armed with two rotors that spin in opposite directions to lift the drone off the ground.

As well as the lower gravity, the helicopter faces the challenge of flying in the Martian atmosphere, which is about 100 times thinner than Earth’s.

As it is a technology demonstration, the helicopter does not have any scientific instruments on board.

It is designed to be mostly autonomous, so Nasa will not be able to control the helicopter remotely.

This is because of the distance between Earth and Mars – it takes more than 11 minutes to get a radio signal back to Earth.