The rover Perseverance was outfitted with a groundbreaking helicopter called Ingenuity. Until now, Earth has been the only planet with technology capable of sustained flight in our solar system. This might not seem like a big deal, but Mars’ atmosphere is roughly 1% of our atmosphere. For perspective, the tip of Mount Everest has a third of the atmospheric pressure there is at sea level. This is why helicopters can’t fly around the mountain’s face, as the low pressure makes designing and flying aircraft there difficult. Another challenge is the trip to Mars from Earth. The trip can be very perilous (roughly half of our martian missions have gone wrong over the years) and aircraft often end up broken.
To combat the challenges the light atmosphere poses, Ingenuity has been designed with two counter-rotating rotors. These also spin five times faster than our helicopter blades do on Earth. Ingenuity only weighs 1.8 kilograms (4lbs) in order to aid its flight. The rotors are 1.2 meters in diameter, oversized to the maximum diameter possible. The helicopter is solar powered and has small electronic parts to help keep things light. It also has small heaters to keep things warm enough to avoid breakage while traveling in space. Despite all the challenges Ingenuity faces, the light gravity on Mars is a benefit. There will be less pull from the planet, making takeoffs and staying in the air easier. It is also fully autonomous, as it takes too long for data to be sent from Earth to Mars for a person to control it.
Ingenuity does not have a major role in Perseverance’s mission, as it is purely a demonstration of what is possible and the data it collects will pave the way for martian aircraft in the future. It’s mission will only last 31 earth days, with the ultimate goal of controlled flight. So far, it has not performed any flights, but Ingenuity has come a long way already! We have already received word from Mars that Ingenuity’s mission is on track and geared to be a big success.