Report: How NASA’s Mars Helicopter Will Reach the Red Planet’s Surface

The small craft will seek to prove that powered, controlled flight is possible on another planet. But just getting it onto the surface of Mars will take a whole lot of ingenuity.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter will travel with the Perseverance rover through 314
million miles (505 million kilometers) of interplanetary space to get to Mars.
But for the team working on the first experimental flight test on
another planet, engineering the final 5 inches (13 centimeters) of the journey has
been among the most challenging of all. To safely navigate those 5 inches – the
distance Ingenuity will travel from where it’s stowed on the rover to the
surface of Mars – they came up with the ingenious Mars Helicopter
Delivery System.

“Ingenuity is unlike any other helicopter ever built
because powered controlled flight at Mars is unlike anything ever
attempted,” said MiMi Aung, project manager of the Mars Helicopter at
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “And then we had
to figure out how to hitch a ride and safely get deployed from the Mars 2020
Perseverance rover.”

Ingenuity’s square fuselage (which houses computers,
cameras, batteries and the like) is about the size of a softball (7.9 by 6.3 by
5.5 inches, or 20 by 16 by 14 centimeters). But if you look outside the box, you’ll
find plenty of other important stuff – including an antenna, solar panel,
landing legs and two rotors measuring 4 feet (1.2 meters) across – that makes
stowing and deploying the helicopter a challenge. The entire package tips the
scales at about 4 pounds (2 kilograms).

“On a Mars rover mission, the addition of even one
new washer is usually worthy of debate,” said Chris Salvo, the helicopter interface
lead of the Mars 2020 mission at JPL. “The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is a
large, fragile, unique assemblage of hardware that is dissimilar to anything
NASA has ever accommodated on a planetary mission.”

Mission engineers considered every available parking
space on the rover chassis for their unusual addition, including the robotic
arm. They eventually landed on Perseverance’s belly, which on a relatively flat
stretch of Red Planet surface should offer about 26 inches (67 centimeters) of ground
clearance. While that may seem like a lot of room (an Earthly SUV provides about
a third of that), the delivery system reduces that distance by about 2 inches (6
centimeters). Ingenuity is about 19 inches (49 centimeters) tall. This is where
the 5-inch journey comes in.

“That is not a lot of room to play with,” said
Salvo, “but we found if you attach the helicopter horizontally, there is
enough to get the job done.”

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter is traveling to Mars attached to the belly of the Perseverance rover and must safely detach to begin the first attempt at powered flight on another planet. Tests done at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Lockheed Martin Space show the sequence of events that will bring the helicopter down to the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech and Lockheed Martin Space

How the Job Is Done

will be deployed about two months after Perseverance lands on Feb. 18, 2021. During
early surface operations, both the rover and helicopter teams will be on the
lookout for potential airfields – a 33-by-33-foot (10-by-10-meter) patch of Martian
real estate that is comparatively flat, level, obstruction-free and viewable by
Perseverance when the rover is parked about a football field away.

On around
the 60th Martian day, or sol, of the mission, Perseverance will drop
the Mars Helicopter Delivery System’s graphite composite debris shield that protected
the helicopter during landing. Then it will drive into the center of the chosen
airfield. About six days later, after the helicopter and rover teams are
satisfied everything is go, they’ll command Mars Helicopter Delivery System to
do its thing.

deployment process begins with the release of a locking mechanism that keeps
the helicopter in place. Then a cable-cutting pyrotechnic device fires,
allowing a spring-loaded arm that holds the helicopter to begin rotating Ingenuity
out of its horizontal position. Along the way, a small electric motor will pull
the arm until it latches, bringing the helicopter body completely vertical with
two of its spring-loaded landing legs deployed. Another pyrotechnic fires,
releasing the other legs.

all the while, the deployment system has to maintain electrical and data cable
connections between rover and helicopter until it’s ready to drop,” said
David Buecher, deployment system manager at Lockheed Martin Space in Denver,
which built the system. “While I have worked on my fair share of
space-based deployment systems, this one was on another level.”

If all
goes well, mission controllers will command the delivery system to release, and
Ingenuity will cover those last 5 inches. Once a good drop is confirmed,
Perseverance will be commanded to drive away so the helicopter can begin recharging its batteries with
its solar panel. At that point, the 30-sol clock on Ingenuity’s flight test
program begins.

The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is an
experimental flight test of new technology. Future Mars missions could enlist
second-generation helicopters to add an aerial dimension to their explorations.
They could act as scouts for human crews, carry small payloads or investigate cliffs,
caves, deep craters and other unvisited or difficult-to-reach destinations. But
before any of that happens, a test vehicle has to prove it’s possible.

And before the test vehicle can do any of
that, it has to land safely on the surface of Mars.

“Ingenuity needs
Perseverance,” said Aung. “The Mars Helicopter Delivery System is an ingenious
gizmo and just one of the examples of how the Mars 2020 mission has worked
above and beyond the call to accommodate our test project. Along with it and the
helicopter, they had to incorporate an electronic base station and antenna
dedicated entirely to helicopter operations into the rover. Our teams had to
work closely together to make this complex system work. When Ingenuity flies,
it will be an achievement we can all share.”

About the Mars 2020 Mission

division of Caltech in Pasadena, JPL built and manages the helicopter for
NASA. Lockheed
Martin Space provided the Mars Helicopter Delivery System. NASA’s Launch
Services Program, based at Kennedy Space Center, is responsible for launch

Perseverance is a robotic
scientist weighing about 2,260 pounds (1,025 kilograms). The rover’s
astrobiology mission will search for signs of past microbial life. It will
characterize the planet’s climate and geology, collect samples for future
return to Earth, and pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet. No
matter what day Perseverance lifts off during its July 20-Aug. 11 launch
period, it will land at Mars’ Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021.

The Mars 2020 Perseverance
rover mission is part of a larger program that includes missions to the Moon as
a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet. Charged with
returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024, NASA will establish a sustained human
presence on and around the Moon by 2028 through NASA’s Artemis
lunar exploration plans.

For more information on
the Mars Helicopter, go to:

For more information about
the Perseverance Mars rover mission, go to:

For more information about NASA’s Mars missions, go to:

News Media Contact

DC Agle
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
[email protected]

Grey Hautaluoma / Alana Johnson
NASA Headquarters, Washington
202-358-0668 / 202-358-1501
[email protected] / [email protected]



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