NASA's forthcoming Perseverance rover will likely find signs of life on Mars — provided life-signs are there. Due to launch in late July from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, the rover is designed to drill through rocks in an ancient Martian lake bed to seek biosignatures, study oxygen in the atmosphere, and collect soil samples that may be sent back to Earth.
However, to accomplish its mission, the Perseverance rover is carrying a trump card: a small autonomous helicopter bolted to its undercarriage, according to NASA.
If everything goes well, the drone — called Ingenuity — will make the first powered flight on another planet.
Mars rover will launch helicopter
While flying a drone on a mostly barren planet sounds easy, it's been notably difficult for engineers to build a machine feasible for the unique specifications of the mission. At 1% of Earth's, Mars' atmosphere is a nightmare for Ingenuity. Additionally, the temperature can drop to -100 degrees Celsius at the landing site.
Ingenuity's Red Planet flight plan
If we imagine a breeze on Earth it makes sense that a helicopter might spin rotors fast enough to move it down, propelling itself upward. "Now imagine having 1 percent of that to bite into or grab onto for lift and control," said Theodore Tzanetos, flight conductor for the project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California, in the journal, Spectrum.
With air like that, conventional helicopters would fall faster than a leaf from a tree (assuming Earth and Mars had equal gravity, which — they don't).
Perseverance and Ingenuity are due to land in a crater called Jezero on February 18, 2021. Roughly 60 days into its mission, the rover will place the rover on the ground, back roughly 100 meters (328 feet) away, and watch it take off.
Roughly the size of a car, Perseverance has a mass of 1,025 kilograms (2,259 pounds). The drone is 1.8 kilograms (3.96 pounds), with a fuselage about the size of a tissue box. Ingenuity has twin carbon-fiber rotors that sit one over the other, spinning in opposite directions at roughly 2,400 rpm — five times faster than most helicopters on Earth.
If the rotors went any slower, the vehicle wouldn't lift off. Any faster and the outer edges of the rotors would near supersonic speed, which could create shock waves and turbulence — all but destroying the drone's ability to stabilize.
Martian drone demo
In all, Ingenuity is a sophisticated technology demonstration. Mission managers hope to make five flights in a 30-day period. None of the flights should last more than 90 seconds, go higher than 10 meters, or travel more than 300 meters in range from the takeoff position.
"It may be a bit less maneuverable than a drone on Earth," said Josh Ravich, the project's mechanical engineering lead at JPL. "[B]ut it has to survive the rocket launch from Earth, the flight from Earth to Mars, entry, descent, and landing on the Martian surface, and the cold nights there."