Last week, one of the most innovative missions in space exploration came to a bitter end. NASA’s famously successful Ingenuity rotorcraft — the 3.5-pound helicopter-like robot collecting samples on Mars — finally came to a crashing end. But already NASA and the European Space Agency are looking ahead to the next generation of space helicopters.
More robust than its predecessor, with at least 66 test flights under its belt and a new dual-rotor system, and carbon-fiber blades that can nearly reach Mach 1 speeds — the heir to Ingenuity has been preparing to take over its predecessor’s mission inside the agency’s 25-foot space simulator at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California.
Ingenuity was the first aircraft to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet. And though it was originally planned for only five flights, the helicopter made it 14 times farther in distance than NASA thought it would, logging more than two hours of airtime in its 72 successful flights on Mars.
“It is bittersweet that I must announce that Ingenuity, the little helicopter that could — and it kept saying ‘I think I can, I think I can!’ — well, it has now taken its last flight on Mars,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a Friday appearance, who compared the craft’s historical flight achievements to those of the Wright brothers in 1903.
“What Ingenuity accomplished far exceeds what we thought was possible,” Nelson said. “And helped NASA do what we do best – make the impossible, possible. Through missions like Ingenuity, NASA is paving the way for future flight in our solar system and smarter, safer human exploration to Mars and beyond.”
Nelson said the fatal blow to Ingenuity came when the craft’s carbon fiber wings — fighting for lift through the planet’s exceedingly thin atmosphere, which is just 1% as dense as Earth’s — sustained damage during a landing. Nelson said the agency is investigating the possibility that the rotor blade struck the ground.
Now, hopes are high for the next generation of helicopters on the red planet. Called Sample Recovery Helicopters (SRH), NASA’s new craft are about the size of Ingenuity but have new dual, carbon-fiber rotors with a wingspan about four inches longer than Ingenuity’s. They’re stronger too, and designed with higher speeds in mind, having already undergone at least 66 test flights with the benefit of Ingenuity’s off-world data.
“Over three weeks, the carbon-fiber blades were spun up at ever-higher speeds and greater pitch angles to see if they would remain intact as their tips approached supersonic speeds. Longer and stronger than those used on NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, the blades reached Mach 0.95 during the test,” NASA said in November.
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Tyler Del Sesto is NASA’s deputy test conductor for the SRH at the Jet Propulsion Lab. After seeing the SRH perform in the lab’s 25-foot wide, 85-foot-tall space simulator, he’s confident about the new fleet.
“We spun our blades up to 3,500 rpm, which is 750 revolutions per minute faster than the Ingenuity blades have gone,” he said in a November statement. “These more efficient blades are now more than a hypothetical exercise. They are ready to fly.”
“What Ingenuity accomplished far exceeds what we thought was possible.”
Powered by solar panels that charge its internal batteries, and equipped with grabber arms and ground-ready wheels, the SRH are being aimed at a landing site near the Perserverance’s rover’s own, in the Jerezo Crater. The rotorcraft would launch from Earth in 2028, arrive on Mars in 2030, and then — fortune prevailing — make it home with its Martial samples in tow by 2033.
“The Sample Recovery Helicopters would expand on Ingenuity's design, adding wheels and gripping capabilities to pick up cached sample tubes left on the surface by Perseverance and transport them to the Sample Retrieval Lander,” according to the the agency’s latest spec sheets.
To get the SRH on the surface safely, NASA is also aiming to premiere its beefy new lander. The Sample Retrieval Lander would be about “the size of an average two-car garage," weighing 7,440 pounds and currently slated to carry two of the SRH. The new lander would also be the first ever to bring along a rocket along for the ride, NASA’s Mars Ascent Vehicle. Once the lander arrives, NASA’s Perseverance rover would carry its collection of Martian sample tubes to the Sample Retrieval Lander. The SRH would take off and collect any Martian sample tubes that Perseverance left behind.
“Each helicopter would follow a four-day procedure to recover sample tubes. Day one: fly to an area near the sample tube. Day two: drive close to the tube and pick it up. Day three: fly back to an area near the Sample Retrieval Lander. Day four: drive close to the lander and drop the tube in the workspace of the lander's Sample Transfer Arm,” the agency said.
But the SRH aren’t the only craft in the works. And the greater leap of innovation among Ingenuity’s descendents may arrive much sooner, with the ambitious Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan. The mission is approved for a readiness date in July 2028, and aims to send a “car-sized nuclear-powered drone” toward the icy surface of Titan, then land on its sands, which will be built and operated by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
Dragonfly’s principal investigator, Elizabeth Turtle, recently said the mission is ready to move ahead after an impressive set of test results in the facility’s 3,000-cubic-foot Titan testing chamber.
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“Dragonfly is such a daring endeavor, like nothing that has ever been done before,” she said in a statement. “We’ve demonstrated that we’re ready for the next steps on the path to Titan, and we’ll keep moving forward with the same curiosity and creativity that have brought Dragonfly to this point.”
Of course, 2028 is still some time away. If you want to make your own Mars helicopter, NASA’s JPL has a YouTube video that will walk you through building your own functional tribute to Ingenuity out of paper. Until then, you can watch the JPL crew give its final farewell to the small-but-mighty Martian-copter in their tribute video below.