BRECKENridge, Colorado — Work is underway to design NASA’s new Mars helicopter.
Thanks to nearly 50 flights over the Jezero Crater area conducted by the Ingenuity Mars helicopter, a lot has been learned to help prepare a future rotorcraft for the Red Planet, and there are plenty of additional posts to be included in the upcoming one. An aerial vehicle that will fly over the surface of Mars.
NASA’s rover has already dropped tube samples into a special capture area on the upper side of Mars. NASA and the European Space Agency are currently planning a joint Mars sample return campaign that will collect samples of Martian rocks and regolith and return them to Earth. The campaign includes two Mars Sample Recovery Helicopters which will retrieve pre-filled sample tubes and deliver them to a waiting rocket which will then jump those samples into Mars orbit.
Related: How will NASA release Mars samples from the Red Planet
Harvard Fager Grape is the chief autonomy and aeronautics engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the laboratory behind the revolutionary Mars Creation rover. Work is underway on a new, ingenious atmospheric system for returning Mars samples, Grebe reported, here at a recent gathering of the American Astronautics Association’s (AAS) Rocky Mountain Division’s Guidance, Navigation, and Control Conference.
Grip has outlined plans for how Ingenuity’s guidance, navigation and control system will be adapted and expanded for its planned Mars sample recovery helicopters. He said Ingenuity’s design forms the core of the new system, but updates are necessary to support the sample recovery concept of operations, primarily in the areas of guidance and navigation.
For now, details on a new robotic rotorcraft for Mars are conceptual, Gripe confirmed, with “details continuing to evolve over the next several years, as the design matures.”
A little air to work with
How difficult is the road ahead?
“Nothing we do is easy. And it’s not easy either. It’s hard but we think it’s possible, with effort,” Greb told Space.com in an interview after the AAS. “The primary challenge here is mass. We have too little air to work with on Mars. That immediately limits how much mass we can carry.”
The basic design of the Mars Helicopter is supported by dozens of Ingenuity flights now under its rotating blades in Jezero Crater. “It will be a matter of adjusting and assimilating the new elements to do something more on Mars,” Greb said.
For unconfirmed new items, each Mars Sample Return helicopter will be equipped with wheels and a small robotic arm. “It’s all conceptual,” Grebe said, adding that the decision to fly this mission had not been finalized.
“What we’re looking at now is how we can do that,” Greb added, referring to the Mars Return Helicopter model. “What is fairly clear is that the basic configuration of the rotorcraft and how we control it has been implemented and is a legacy to build on. The new parts will require a lot of work, and this is likely to change as we continue with the design.”
When it comes to when Ingenuity will be broadcast on Mars, Grip proudly points out that he was the primary pilot of the device from the first flight on April 19, 2021 through Number 37. Just before the new year, he hands that mission over to another person after earning new wings to focus on the mission. Helicopters to retrieve Mars samples.
“That first flight definitely stands out…a bitter nail. Many of the follow-up flights have new elements, such as new flight software to give the helicopter more capabilities. Some of the recent flights have really pushed the boundaries,” Grip said.
“I don’t think it ever becomes risk-free. So there’s always some amount of tension waiting for the data to come in. But it’s getting more routine,” said Grepe, the more often the car flies. However, there is always a hopeful mentality in every business as planned, he said.
However, noting that Ingenuity’s previously hoped-for flight was only five flights, the Mars helicopter “exceeded everyone’s expectations…and it certainly exceeded mine,” said Grape. “The distance you’re leaving behind and using it in productive ways like this, that’s huge.”
NASA’s Perseverance rover in Jezero Crater is a robotic custodian of sorts, curator of a Martian museum of priceless bits and pieces from the ancient Red Planet — some of which may hold evidence, perhaps evidence, of Martian life.
One such repository for these samples is currently under construction in the Three Forks area on the floor of Jezero Crater. Thanks to flights of ingenuity over this part of the Martian real estate, this site is well marked.
“Creativity was very helpful, taking pictures of the surface in that very area. We have real data that describes what you’ll find at Three Forks,” said Grape.
The future of airborne vehicles on Mars is bright, Grip senses, particularly their use as tools for human expedition crews. One of the tasks is to conduct reconnaissance sweeps away from the crew landing site.
“How far does your imagination go?” Grieb concluded. “The main thing is that we now have a new navigation system ready and installed on Mars…now how do you use it?”
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