Ode to Ingenuity: the unexpected end of NASA's first helicopter on Mars

Ingenuity suelo marciano

After reaching Mars, on February 18, 2021, Ingenuity's mission came to an abrupt end on Sol 1040. To everyone's surprise, it was not the mechanics that failed, but the navigation system. Despite the fact that until now optical navigation had proven to be very successful in the Martian environment.

Broken ingenuity image
Image of the Ingenuity helicopter with damage to its blade after the accident landing. Source: NASA/JPL

A clear culprit

From the first minute, NASA reported that the problem was found in the navigation system. This works thanks to the cameras carried by the helicopter, which recognize the terrain and determine where it is. In addition to knowing its location from photos, the Perseverance rover from the Mars 2020 mission, of which Ingenuity was a part, was used. The rover has acted like a mother throughout the mission, she even carried him for nine months in her womb. After completing its landing and doing its checks, releasing it was one of the first milestones of the mobile laboratory on Mars.

In addition to its transportation and helping with its location, Perseverance was completely essential for communications. Due to its limited size, the flying device did not have antennas capable of communicating with the Earth, or even with the Martian orbiters. This issue deserves another look because the last decade dedicated to the Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity and Perseverance) has diminished orbital exploration. And it is little known, but both rovers, in addition to InSight, another recent victim of the red planet, depend on them for most communications.

Ingenuity Mars deployment image
Image of Ingenuity's deployment to the Martian surface from the belly of Perseverance. Source: NASA

A tumultuous start

The ingenuity helicopter was not a scientific plan. It was a political imposition, of which NASA is plagued, although sometimes they are for the better or even very good. The clearest example is this helicopter which has given such good scientific and advertising results, although it is worth highlighting the JUNOcam. This instrument, a simple camera (so simple that it has been compared to a home video camera) is the only one that carries the homonymous probe. With it we are obtaining images of Jupiter as it has never been seen before. But, and even more important, of the moons of the largest planet in the Solar System.

The reason behind incorporating the small helicopter is that Faced with Congress, Perseverance was still a Curiosity 2.0. We should not underestimate the fact, even if it were true that it were so, because it is a nuclear laboratory on wheels. But if possible, Perseverance is even more advanced and capable of collecting samples and preparing them for subsequent shipment to Earth. No matter how expensive and developed the instruments taken to Mars are, they will never be the same as their study on Earth, despite being more complex.

Although it should be noted that NASA's Martian sample return collection program in collaboration with ESA is currently hanging by a thread. But not abandoning this topic, Ingenuity has proven so effective that it is currently also part of the largest space robotic mission in history. In a monstrous budget of 7 billion, which is expected to actually exceed fifteen thousand, there is room for the successors to the first extraterrestrial flying device.

Ingy tour
Tour of Ingenuity in its time on Mars. The journey originates at the bottom right and follows the yellow line, the blue mark indicates your current location. Source: NASA

Successors and imitators of Ingenuity

Even before the success of the NASA model in a real environment, a series of Indian drones appeared on the internet.. And although at that time, nor now, the mission was confirmed Mangalyan 2 to the Martian surface by the ISRO gave something to talk about. It was a bold plan given that the Indian space agency's budget has always been limited and its cargo margins even more so. But their robotic successes hide a serious lack of medium and heavy lift launchers that hinders its space program. 

After initial successes, more news arrived from the Far East, although on that occasion it came from China. The dragon giant had already conquered the Moon and its space program was facing the launch of its first solo mission to Mars in addition to its brand-new manned space station. Several years later, for the first time in history, the prevalence of NASA in the exploration of Mars is threatened by this country. Although the only person responsible will be the US space agency itself due to its extremely complex sample collection system.

In this mission we will see the first successors of Ingenuity, or at least the latest plans presented say so. Evolution is moderate, if something works, don't change it, but there are differences.

Views of ingenuity coin flight number 760, landscape similar to that of the place where it crashed
Processed image of Ingenuity flight number 70 showing the terrain in which it was flying when a blade crashed into the ground. POT

The mission of the Sample Recovery Helicopters It is supportive. In theory, Perseverance should carry the tubes with rock and gases to the lander of the sample return mission. But if this were not possible due to some problem with the rover, it is not acceptable to consider the mission lost and therefore it has been improved The design of Ingenuity.

For starters, the defenestrate has no way to catch the tubes, so the SRH incorporate small robot arms. In this way they can collect them from the ground, where Perseverance deposits them, the next day each one would rise with a sample. On that flight they would return to the vicinity of the probe Sample Retrieval Lander. On that lander you will find the cmartian ascent story, in charge of putting the samples into orbit and another probe would collect them to return them to Earth.

The displacements that Ingenuity's successors will have to make will be substantially larger, which is why the battery was expanded. This also allowed increase he blade diameter, up to 1.2 meters. They have also fattened, from 1.8 to 2.3 kg. On the other hand, the Fixed legs have been replaced with wheels, which should also allow small trips by land. Nobody wants to risk crashing one spacecraft into another, and on the ground the risk is reduced.

Ingenuity successor image
Image of Ingenuity's successor with its parts indicated. Source: NASA

Despite a tumultuous start, Ingenuity has once again proven the worth of the engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. These brilliant minds at the forefront of Martian exploration receive millions of dollars in funding, but they justify every penny with their discoveries. This time, surprising more than usual since not even they believed that the first five flights could be completed. Finally, the experience allows them to expedite a more important mission such as sending Martian samples to Earth.

Martin Morala Andres