By Matt Zhang
A mere two months ago, the Perseverance rover landed on the Martian surface, to celebration and applause from those who engineered its successful arrival back on the ground. Since then, it has been exploring the Martian surface, along with its space rover sidekick, Ingenuity. Originally planned for a maiden flight on the 11th of April, it was delayed due to potential software problems. After an update, Ingenuity was readied for flight on the 19th, for a second try.
And fly it did; although not for long. In the early hours of the 19th, it flew for 40 seconds, hovering above the Martian surface, snapping a quick picture before resting back on the ground. Although this may not seem like much of an accomplishment, the obstacles that needed to be overcome were massive. First off, the atmospheric differences between Mars and Earth are extraordinary, as Mars’ atmosphere is less than 1% of Earth’s. As a result, it would need to generate an immense amount of lift, and be very light as well. To accomplish this, NASA used a chamber to simulate the Martian environment on Earth, by reducing the atmospheric pressure and using weight and strings to simulate the 38% gravity on Mars in comparison to Earth. In the end, they fulfilled both goals; with Ingenuity weighing in at around 4 pounds and half a meter tall. Furthermore, due to the time differences and the difficulties in maneuvering the aircraft, Ingenuity had to pilot itself completely autonomously. Their tests paid off. According to Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung: “It looks just the way we had tested it in our test chambers.” “Absolutely beautiful flight. I don’t think I can ever stop watching it over and over again.”
The team will now take Ingenuity on longer and more risky trips, to gauge its capabilities in the future. However, one thing is certain: powered flight on Mars is possible. In the future, we could use aircraft to maneuver around Mars, in comparison to clunky rovers traversing the dull Martian landscape. One small flight for Ingenuity, one big leap for space exploration.
Below, two pictures showing Ingenuity from Perseverance’s cameras. NASA, 2021.