NASA ingenuity faces challenge as density of Martian atmosphere shrinks

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The mini-helicopter flew to the Red Planet on February 18 while strapped to the belly of NASA's Perseverance rover.

The mini-helicopter flew to the Red Planet on February 18 while strapped to the belly of NASA’s Perseverance rover.

In a statement released by NASA’s Perseverance rover team last week, it was revealed that the atmospheric density on the planet had dropped, which would affect flight.

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Jet Propulsion Lab’s mini helicopter on Mars named Ingenuity is preparing for its 14th flight on the Red Planet. However, with the changing weather conditions on the neighboring planet, the next flight will face new challenges. In a statement released by NASA’s Perseverance rover team last week, it was revealed that the atmospheric density on the planet had dropped, which would affect flight. The statement mentioned that as their mission to Mars entered its sixth month, the planet entered a season where air densities in Jezero Crater fell to much lower levels. NASA scientists speculate that in the coming months, they could observe densities as low as 0.012 kg / m3 (1.0% of the Earth’s density) during the afternoon hours which are considered to be preferable for flight.

Perseverance made its landing on Mars in February 2021. Attached to the rover was the Ingenuity helicopter which made its first flight on the planet in April. NASA also explained that this change in atmospheric density on Mars is something the Ingenuity helicopter has not been tested for on Earth. According to their calculations, NASA expected Ingenuity’s five-flight mission to be completed within the first few months after Perseverance landed in February 2021. Therefore, Ingenuity was prepared for flights at atmospheric densities between 0.0145 and 0.0185 kg / m3, which is equivalent to 1.2-1.5% of the Earth’s atmospheric density at sea level. However, recent development of the planet is expected to affect the 14th Ingenuity flight.

The challenge of atmospheric density relates to Ingenuity’s ability to fly. For its lowest design limit for atmospheric density (0.0145 kg / m3), Ingenuity operators on Earth know that the helicopter has a thrust margin of at least 30%. Thrust margin is the excess thrust that ingenuity can produce beyond what is needed to glide. This additional thrust is essential during takeoffs and climbs, during maneuvers, as well as when following terrain of varying heights. With the recent drop in atmospheric density, Ingenuity’s thrust margin could drop as much as 8%. This implies that Ingenuity would operate near the aero stall, a condition in which further increases in the blade’s angle of attack do not produce more lift, only more drag, NASA explained.

NASA scientists have found a solution, however. To combat the low atmospheric density, Ingenuity will have to spin faster than ever on Earth. NASA has said its upcoming operations on Mars will focus on careful testing of higher rotor speeds for future flights.

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