NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'


NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder' © Provided by CNET NASA's experimental Ingenuity helicopter has turned into a Mars scout. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

High-risk, high-reward. NASA's Mars helicopter gamble has paid off as Ingenuity continues to soar over the Martian landscape as a scout for the Perseverance rover. It's been a triumphant mission, but the helicopter's job is getting a lot tougher to perform.

Havard Grip, Ingenuity's chief pilot, talked about the challenges facing the chopper in a NASA status update this week. The density of the atmosphere in the Jezero Crater is dropping, a factor Grip said has "a significant impact on Ingenuity's ability to fly."

Atmospheric density -- which can fluctuate over time and with seasonal changes -- affects how much thrust Ingenuity needs to get off the ground and climb through the air. Lower density makes it harder to do these tasks. Even full-size helicopters on Earth must take atmospheric density into consideration. Ingenuity was optimized to work in an atmosphere on Mars that is about 1.2-1.5% of Earth's at sea level, but the rotorcraft has stuck around long enough to experience a change in conditions.

NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
© NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

NASA's experimental Ingenuity helicopter has turned into a Mars scout.

This doesn't mean Ingenuity will be grounded. "Thankfully, there is a way to tackle this issue, but it involves spinning the rotors even faster than we have been doing up to now," Grip said. "In fact, they will have to spin faster than we have ever attempted with Ingenuity or any of our test helicopters on Earth."

The plucky little rotorcraft is headed into uncharted territory as its team plans to test this speed-demon version of its rotors. NASA JPL said Ingenuity did a rotor spin test and could take off on its 14th flight as early as today. The flight will be short and will aim to show the chopper can handle lower atmospheric densities.

These tests represent a short break from Ingenuity's recent work of flying over Mars and scouting the landscape to help the Perseverance team plan out the rover's explorations.

Grip warned of possible issues that could come with increased rotor speeds. The helicopter might experience aerodynamic drag that prevents flights, though Grip says this isn't expected to be a problem yet. The rotorcraft could also encounter vibrations that might damage its hardware. 

  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
  • NASA: Flying the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is 'getting harder and harder'
NASA started a new chapter in its space exploration history book with the safe landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021. This stunning image shows the rover as it was lowered to the surface using what's called a "sky crane" maneuver. This could become an iconic image when it comes to humanity's efforts to investigate our solar system. Perseverance is on a mission to seek out signs of ancient microbial life, and collect samples that could one day be brought back to Earth. The rover didn't travel alone. It has a helicopter companion, Ingenuity.
Perseverance stands out in this April 6, 2021, selfie that also features the Ingenuity Mars helicopter.
NASA's Mars rovers have a knack for taking pictures of funny-looking rocks. This one, dubbed "butt crack rock" for obvious reasons, is one. Perseverance snapped it in early June 2021, leading to much mirth on social media.
This drill hole was supposed to give the Perseverance rover its first rock sample in August 2021, but all that resulted was an empty tube. As it turned out, the rock was too crumbly to collect. The rover later went on to drill its first successful core samples, from a sturdier source.
This rock, nicknamed "Rochette," has two holes in it that represent Perseverance's first successful core samples. The rover collected the samples in September 2021 and sealed them into tubes for safekeeping. They could one day be brought back to Earth through a future NASA mission.
This close-up look shows Perseverance's first rock core sample, which the rover collected in early September 2021. After the first sample attempt crumbled, NASA wanted to make sure this pencil-size piece of rock was in the right place before Perseverance stowed it away.
The Perseverance rover caught sight of its chopper buddy on Sept. 4, 2021. The red circle marks the spot where Ingenuity sat in the distance. The rotorcraft has completed more than a dozen successful flights.
NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter spotted its own shadow during its 13th flight on the red planet, in early September 2021. The rotorcraft proved that powered, controlled flight was possible on another planet. It then went and repeated the feat multiple times as it took on a new mission of scouting the landscape for the Perseverance rover.
Here, the Ingenuity helicopter is seen in a close-up taken by the Perseverance rover. The rotorcraft had its triumphant first flight on Mars in April 2021.
Perseverance snapped this image of the Ingenuity helicopter on Mar. 28, 2021, near the beginning of the deployment process. This was at a time when it was uncertain if the chopper would work on Mars. It ended up a spectacular success.
NASA's Perseverance rover snapped this view of a boulder on Mars on June 11, 2021. The rock resembles a walrus, a seal or even a banana slug.
NASA's Perseverance rover sent back its first look at the surface of Mars on Feb. 18, 2021 with a low-resolution shot from an engineering camera. This view highlighted the dusty and rocky surface of the red planet within the Jezero Crater, a region that has a fascinating history of water in its deep past.
One of the first images Perseverance sent back from Mars was this look at one of its six wheels. Geologists were excited about the pitted-looking rocks nearby and wondered if they might be volcanic or sedimentary.
NASA's Perseverance rover snapped a view of this odd rock on March 28, 2021. If you look closely just to the right of center, you can see a series of tiny marks where the rover's laser zapped it. Scientists were interested in the possible origin of the rock, which might be volcanic in nature.
The Perseverance rover has plenty of opportunities to look around and scope out the surrounding landscape, which shows off some pretty typical Mars sights of dust, dirt and rocks.
The Perseverance rover spent time snapping pictures of its body parts after landing. This image shows the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer, an instrument that takes weather measurements and studies dust particles.
Perseverance's view across the Jezero Crater from early in its mission included this scenic delta area.
An upward-facing camera captured this view of the deployed parachute that helped ease Perseverance's arrival on Mars in February 2021. The parachute contained a hidden message: "Dare mighty things."
NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped an image of Mars showing Perseverance and all the assorted bits used and discarded during the landing process. The orbiting spacecraft gives us a different perspective on the landing site in Jezero Crater. Annotations show the locations of the parachute, descent stage, rover and heat shield.
Thanks to some extra cameras NASA installed for the Perseverance mission, space fans got unprecedented views of the harrowing landing process. This is the protective heat shield jettisoned by Perseverance just minutes before landing.
The highlighted portion of this image shows where the mission's descent stage landed safely away from the Perseverance rover on Feb. 18, 2021. After escorting the rover to the surface, the descent stage moved away and impacted the surface. The rover fortuitously caught sight of the smoke plume in the distance.
This image shows a small section of the rover's first high-definition panorama, which NASA stitched together from 142 separate images. The full panorama shows a sweeping view of the landscape and the distant walls of Jezero Crater.
The Perseverance rover snapped a look at its deck and stowed arm on Feb. 20, 2021. The vehicle was looking pretty clean just a couple of days after its arrival on dusty Mars.
NASA sent its Perseverance rover to collect samples, search for signs of past microbial life and even unleash an experimental helicopter. This illustration helped build excitement for the mission before we got our first selfie.Perseverance launched on July 30, 2020, kicking off a months-long journey through space. Landing was a tense process, but Perseverance joined Curiosity as NASA's only functioning rovers on Mars.
NASA's latest red planet rover was originally known as the Mars 2020 rover until a naming contest gave it the new moniker Perseverance. NASA announced the name in March 2020. It was chosen from over 28,000 entries from students across the US.
NASA's Perseverance rover hitched a ride into space on July 30, 2020, on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. The rover took months to reach Mars before touching down on the red planet in February 2021.
The Perseverance rover is the size of a small car. Its "head" holds cameras on top of a necklike mast. These act as the rover's eyes, helping it record the Martian surface, look ahead for hazards and snap gorgeous landscape views. This design gives the rover "a human-scale view," according to NASA.
Mars is challenging for robotic explorers. Humanity has had both triumphs and heartbreaks when it comes to investigating the red planet. NASA's Perseverance rover isn't the only vehicle with big Mars dreams. The European Space Agency plans to launch its ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover in 2022. China's space agency also succesfully landed its own Tianwen-1 rover in 2021.
NASA's Perseverance rover touched down in a previously unexplored part of Mars called Jezero Crater. The space agency announced the winning landing site in late 2018. This Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image shows the Jezero Crater delta region. "The landing site in Jezero Crater offers geologically rich terrain, with landforms reaching as far back as 3.6 billion years old, that could potentially answer important questions in planetary evolution and astrobiology," said NASA's Thomas Zurbuchen.
Put your wheels in the air like you just don't care. NASA's rover team put the Perseverance rover through a series of tests during its final preparations in April 2020. These tests included balancing the rover, a concept similar to balancing a car's wheels. NASA added weight to the rover chassis to achieve this.
Mars is a tough landscape. It's sandy and rocky and can be punishing on a rover's wheels, as the Curiosity rover knows. Perseverance's six aluminum wheels are made with cleats that give them traction in tricky surface conditions. Each wheel is 20.7 inches (52.5 centimeters) in diameter.
One of the wildest aspects of the Perseverance mission is that it includes a helicopter. The small helicopter, named Ingenuity, rode in under the rover's belly before being placed on the Martian ground in April 2021.This image shows the flight model of the helicopter in early 2019. NASA considered Ingenuity a high-risk, high-reward technology demonstration. When it finally took off, it marked a stunning achievement in flight on another planet.
In April 2020, NASA tucked the Mars Ingenuity helicopter into the belly of the Perseverance rover. The Mars-copter was protected by a shell during the descent to the planet's surface in February 2021.
NASA invited Earth's citizens to ride along with the Perseverance rover to Mars. Nearly 11 million people signed up and their names are now etched on silicon chips that are installed on an aluminum plate on the rover. The plate also sports an illustration of the Earth, the sun and Mars. There's a special message here, too. Morse code hidden in the sun's rays spells out the phrase "explore as one."
The Perseverance rover won't ever forget its own name. It's wearing a titanium nameplate that's not just decorative. "The plate serves as a rock and debris shield to protect a flexible cable that carries power and data from computers in the rover's body to actuators in the arm, as well as to the instruments and the drill in the turret," NASA said.
NASA's Perseverance rover will be doing a lot of sampling of Mars. In May 2020, engineers installed a set of sample tubes into the rover's belly. "Each tube is sheathed in a gold-colored cylindrical enclosure to protect it from contamination," NASA said.Perseverance collected it first rock samples in September 2021, but it'll be up to a future Mars mission to pick them up. NASA hopes to collect at least a dozen samples and eventually bring them to Earth for study.
Perseverance is looking for signs of past microbial life in the Jezero Crater on Mars. This photo shows a collection of stromatolites, rounded accumulations of fossilized microbes and sediment, found right here on Earth, in Nevada. "Scientists hope to find something similar in the dry lakebed Perseverance will be exploring on Mars," said NASA.
It takes a big rocket to get off this rock. This United Launch Alliance Atlas V booster escorted NASA's Perseverance rover into space from Florida in July 2020. This look at the Atlas V comes from late May 2020 at Cape Canaveral.
NASA shared this look at the rocket-powered rover descent stage in 2018. This crucial component of the landing system helped to slow the rover's arrival and then lowered the vehicle to the surface using a "sky crane" maneuver."Nylon cords spool out to lower the rover 25 feet (7.6 meters) below the descent stage; When the spacecraft senses touchdown at Jezero Crater, the connecting cords are severed and the descent stage flies off," NASA said in describing the landing process.
This is how you pack up a rover for shipping to Mars. NASA shared a look at the Perseverance rover's belly with the descent stage above it and the helicopter in place in May 2020. The rover launched in July 2020.
To safely land a rover on Mars, you need a lot of specialized equipment. The bowl-shaped back shell kept the Perseverance rover protected as it entered the Martian atmosphere.
NASA wanted its Perseverance rover to have a pleasant and gentle arrival on Mars in February 2021. To make that happen, it needed a big parachute. This still image came from a September 2018 test that mimicked the conditions of Mars. The successful test was one in a series and gave NASA confidence in the parachute system. "It was the fastest inflation in history of a parachute this size and created a peak load of almost 70,000 pounds of force," NASA said.

The planned tests will be quite a workout for the chopper. "The motors will need to spin faster, the electrical system will need to deliver more power, and the entire rotor system will need to withstand the higher loads that come with increased rotor speeds," Grip said. 

Ingenuity has a knack for overcoming challenges. It's made it through technical glitches and software updates and taken on increasingly more difficult flights. Here's hoping it soars right past this latest obstacle.

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