NASA Tests Next-Gen Helicopter Designs on Earth and Mars

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For the first time in history, two planets are involved in testing aircraft designs. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California recently tested a new rotor for Mars helicopters, spinning at near-supersonic speeds. Simultaneously, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter set new records on Mars for altitude and airspeed in experimental flight testing.

Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity’s project manager, highlighted the unique benefits of testing on Earth and Mars. Earth offers extensive instrumentation and hands-on testing capabilities. Mars, however, provides authentic off-world conditions like thin atmosphere and lower gravity, impossible to replicate on Earth.

NASA’s next-generation carbon fiber rotor blades, longer and stronger than Ingenuity’s, are being tested on Earth. These blades aim to enable larger, more capable Mars helicopters. However, as blade tips approach supersonic speeds, controlling vibration and turbulence becomes challenging.

Engineers turned to JPL’s 25-foot wide, 85-foot-tall space simulator for creating Martian atmosphere conditions on Earth. Here, the blades underwent rigorous testing, reaching speeds up to 3,500 rpm. Tyler Del Sesto, JPL’s deputy test conductor, emphasized the efficiency and readiness of these blades for flight.

Meanwhile, Ingenuity, about 100 million miles away on Mars, has exceeded its original five-flight limit, now having flown 66 times. This solar-powered rotorcraft has doubled its max airspeed and altitude, offering new planetary perspectives. Travis Brown, Ingenuity’s chief engineer, noted these advancements provide valuable data for future Mars missions.

Ingenuity flights, typically lasting two to three minutes, are limited by energy and motor temperature. To increase ground speed, the team commands higher altitudes, allowing the navigation system more time to recognize surface features. Flight 61 set a new altitude record, and Flight 62 a new speed record. The team is also experimenting with landing speeds, aiming for lighter landing gear designs.

In December, Ingenuity will perform high-speed flights to measure performance under special pitch-and-roll angles. Brown stressed the importance of these tests for refining aero-mechanical models of rotorcraft behavior on Mars.

Originally a technology demonstration, Ingenuity first flew on Mars on April 19, 2021. It transitioned to an operations demonstration phase in May 2021, proving the viability of aerial scouting on Mars and other worlds. JPL built the helicopter and manages the project for NASA, with significant contributions from other NASA centers and industry partners.

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