Why flying NASA's Ingenuity helicopter on Mars is so hard

4 min read
NASA's Ingenuity could make history in April.
On Earth, humans put more than a century of work into the art of flying. On Mars, we're just getting started.

NASA's four-pound helicopter, Ingenuity, touched down on the the surface of Mars on April 3 and will begin test flights in early April. It will be the first time humans have flown anything on another planet.

In a nod to the Wright brothers' first flight, it's carrying a tiny piece of the plane that flew at Kitty Hawk. If all goes well, Ingenuity could take up to five 90-second flights over 30 sols, or Mars days, which are slightly longer than Earth days.

For decades, scientists have examined the surfaces of moons and planets from spacecraft high above. Rovers provide a closer look, but are painfully slow. Ingenuity has the advantage of flying low — only 10 to 16 feet in the air — while traveling relatively fast. It's equipped only with a camera. But future drones could carry more tools.

"It represents opening up a new avenue of space exploration," said Josh Ravich, mechanical lead on Ingenuity. "It opens a lot of possibilities not just for Mars, but for any body with an atmosphere."

One proposed mission to Saturn's moon Titan features a drone dubbed Dragonfly. Data from Ingenuity could help make it a reality.

The question remains, though: Can Ingenuity fly?

That's no simple task.

Different planet, different atmosphere, different rules

If the flight tests begin in April as expected, Mars will be anywhere between 260 million and 330 million kilometers away from Earth. At that distance, it would take up to 15 minutes for a signal from a pilot to reach Ingenuity, a delay that would make it nearly impossible to control the drone manually.

Even if scientists did have someone on the surface of Mars with a joystick, NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) researchers found out years ago that even the best drone pilots have trouble navigating in a Mars-like atmosphere, which is only about 1 percent as dense as Earth's.

Because there are fewer molecules to push off…
Kellen Beck
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