Seldom has a piece of model (and experimental) engineering created such interest as the first flight of Ingenuity the NASA helicopterette on Mars this week. Ingenuity became the first aircraft in history to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet. It took mankind centuries to work out how to fly machines on Earth but engineers on the Ingenuity team took just six years to show that it was possible to build something ultra-lightweight that could generate enough lift in Mars’ thin atmosphere to take off from the ground, and that could operate and survive autonomously in the challenging Martian environment.

Ingenuity first survived the dynamic environment around launch and proved it could charge its off-the-shelf batteries in space. Flying over the surface of Mars will confirm results from flight tests performed in special space simulation chambers and provide insights into operating a helicopter on Mars.

Mars has beyond bone-chilling temperatures, with nights as cold as minus 90 degrees Celsius (minus130 degrees Fahrenheit). Mars also has a rarefied atmosphere – just about 1% of the density of the atmosphere on Earth. Because the Mars atmosphere is so much less dense, Ingenuity is designed to be light, with rotor blades that are much larger and spin much faster than what would be required for a helicopter of Ingenuity’s mass on Earth. Mars does give the helicopter a little help; the gravity there is only about one-third that of Earth’s. That means slightly more mass can be lifted at a given spin rate.

Ingenuity will now attempt test flights within a 30-Martian-day (31-Earth-day) demonstration window.

the only free and the only weekly magazine for model engineers. 

Editor: David Carpenter