The Ingenuity Mars helicopter has been more successful than anyone expected, exceeding its originally planned five flights. The small helicopter recently completed its 66th flight and has endured the harsh Martian winter. With its success, NASA is now investigating the possibility of more helicopters for future Mars missions, and the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) recently shared a glimpse inside testing new Mars helicopter hardware .
One of the biggest challenges in flying a helicopter on Mars is the extremely thin atmosphere, which is only 1% the density of Earth. This means that a helicopter has to displace large amounts of air to stay aloft, which requires large rotors that spin very fast. JPL engineers are experimenting with a new rotor design that can rotate at nearly the speed of sound, which has been tested in a simulator space that can recreate Mars-like conditions of extreme cold and low pressure.
“Testing our next-generation Mars helicopter has literally been the best of both worlds,” Teddy Tzanatos, Ingenuity project manager and manager of Mars Sample Recovery Helicopters, said in a statement. “Here on Earth, you have all the equipment and practical immediacy you could hope for when testing new aircraft components. On Mars, you have real off-world conditions that you can never really recreate here on Earth.
The rotor blades are made of carbon fiber and are even longer than those used on Ingenuity, with a new design that makes them stronger so they are able to support a larger helicopter. Spinning these rotors faster helps them move more air, however, it can also create turbulence which can cause the helicopter to tilt. For this reason, engineers have been careful when increasing the speed of the rotors – for the new tests on Earth and for Ingenuity on Mars.
“We rotated our blades up to 3,500 rpm, which is 750 revolutions per minute faster than the Ingenuity blades,” said Tyler Del Sesto, Sample Recovery Helicopter deputy test conductor at JPL. “These more efficient blades are now much more than a hypothetical exercise. They are ready to fly.”
With this new data, engineers can now work on Ingenuity’s successor, although any new design will require a lot of testing before it is ready to be sent to the Red Planet.
“The data will be extremely useful in fine-tuning our aero-mechanical models of how rotorcraft behave on Mars,” said Travis Brown, Ingenuity chief engineer at JPL. “On Earth, such testing is usually done in the first few flights. But that’s not where we’re flying. When you’re working so far from the nearest repair shop you have to be a little more careful so you don’t get any do-overs.