Space: Why Flying a Drone on Mars is an Incredible Challenge for Science

The Basics The flight of Ingenuity, the small motorized airborne drone helicopter aboard the Perseverance rover, which is currently on Mars, has been postponed for a few days by NASA. But why does the theft of this little machine weighing less than 2 kg arouse so much caution and enthusiasm?

The first flight of the Mars drone Ingenuity, which was supposed to take place on the night of April 11th to April 12th, was finally postponed. In a tweet on April 13th, NASA announced that a new date was planned for next week. After one of the Ingenuity subsystems survived its first few nights in an extreme climate where temperatures can drop below -90 ° C, it did not respond positively. If the flight has been postponed, it is mainly because NASA teams only have one chance to send it off and there is no going back. But why so much precaution for a simple drone flight?

With this mission, NASA wants to prove that it is possible to fly in the atmosphere of a planet other than Earth. The aim is not to collect scientific data, but to demonstrate the usefulness and interest of an aircraft on Mars. The small helicopter, which is attached to the chassis of the Perseverance rover, measures 13.6 cm x 19.5 cm at the height of the fuselage (body to which the wings are attached) and 1.21 m at the height of the rotor. The aircraft weighs a little less than 2 kg. And for its first flight, it is expected to rise 3 meters above the Jezero crater from which it will take off.

The goal of the Ingenuity drone is to stay in flight for 20 to 30 seconds and make a small turn in the air before descending to land. Never seen! If this flight takes place, it will mark a great first in the history of aviation and astral exploration. A remote-controlled machine has never flown on a planet other than Earth.

The Ingenuity mission will last 30 Martian soils (31 days on Earth) and include 5 flights. The first will obviously be the most important and each flight will not exceed 90 seconds. This experience is immortalized by the Ingenuity himself who has two cameras, one aimed at the ground and the other in front of him, with which he can take pictures that will be spectacular.

Because the mission is a challenge to physics

The current conditions on the planet Mars are difficult obstacles to overcome in the Ingenuity drone helicopter flight project. In fact, the Martian atmosphere is completely different from that of Earth: it is 100 times less dense than ours. In addition, there is a low gravity, so that our weight on Martian soil is reduced just like with Ingenuity (680 g on Mars). Consequence: More energy is required to take off, so the small NASA machine has to double its efforts to achieve its goals. Fortunately, the drone was designed with the prospect of overcoming all conceivable difficulties. It’s light and powerful enough at the same time to take off in the delicate atmosphere of Mars thanks to its blades that rotate at 2400 revolutions per minute.

Furthermore, this little gem of technology cannot be monitored live as the information is transcribed on Earth 20 minutes later. Therefore, the flight plan must be loaded onto the drone in advance. After all, the flight of an aircraft on the red planet requires taking into account new conditions and challenges, which NASA, however, are visibly surmountable.

Because it opens up new perspectives for space

A drone, along with exploration vehicles, would be of great use to optimize their movements on Mars. A vehicle like Curiosity, which has been installed on Mars since 2012, has restricted the view of its surroundings, while a drone could take off and gather information in a larger area. The success of Ingenuity would thus open a new future in the exploration of the Mars system. This mission could also make it possible to determine whether it is possible to send a larger remote-controlled helicopter to the planet Mars.

NASA has been working on the idea of ​​flying a drone on Mars for 8 years. France (and the Toulouse-based teams in particular) has also started the race to develop a Mars microdrones. From 2015 to 2019, Thibaut Desert (PhD student at Isae-Supaero and Onera) carried out an aeropropulsive study of a rotating car micro-drone to explore Mars. The drone, developed in collaboration with Onera, ISAE-Supaéro and Cnes, is more compact than the Ingenuity (30 cm diameter). It was tested in a chamber that reproduced the Martian atmosphere. The goal for France is to prove that an even more compact concept than Ingenuity could fly to Mars by 2022.

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