US space agency NASA is flying an aircraft — a helicopter capable of flying in alien atmosphere — in Mars. The 1.8 kg chopper, called Ingenuity, nicknamed “Ginny”, is part of NASA’s Perseverance rover which was launched in 2020 and is still active on Mars.
The man who designed the aircraft is Dr J Bob Balaram — an Indian citizen currently working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory or JPL. “It was a challenge making the Ingenuity helicopter as none believed in it,” said Dr Balaram, who studied Mechanical Engineering at IIT, Madras.
Ingenuity is a marvel of technology, weighing merely 1.8 kg, It is made of ultra-light weight carbon fibre and is just half a meter tall. The density of air on Mars in about one-hundredth of Earth’s at sea level, or the density of air at 27,000 meters above earth, an altitude never reached by existing helicopters.
To fly Ingenuity the blades rotate at 2400 and 2900 rpm, or about 10 times faster than any helicopter on Earth.
Ingenuity is an experiment of sorts to test powered, controlled flight on another world for the first time.
Perched on the Perseverance rover, the chopper reached the surface of Mars like stowaway on February 18, 2021. The Ingenuity helicopter was deployed to the surface on April 3, 2021.
Once the rover reached a suitable “airfield” location, it released Ingenuity to the surface so it could perform a series of test flights over a 30-Martian-day experimental window — similar to the India’s Chandrayaan rover Pragyan.
India’s historic moon mission received an emphatic thumbs-up from Dr Balaram. “Vikram landing gave one goose bumps, ISRO should pursue its own goals,” he said.
His helicopter has completed its technology demonstration after three successful flights.
For its first flight on April 19, 2021, Ingenuity took off, climbed to about 3 meters above the ground, hovered in the air briefly, completed a turn, and landed.
It was a major milestone having a powered, controlled flight in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars. It was also the first flight in the world beyond Earth.
After that, the chopper successfully performed additional experimental flights of incrementally farther distance and greater altitude. So far, it has made 64 flights in the thin Martian atmosphere. Flying Ingenuity was truly the ‘Wright Brothers moment’ on another planet, he said.
Early next year, an Earth imaging satellite named NISAR — made jointly by India and the US –will be flown from Sriharikota. It would be part of the increasingly strong joint space initiative of the two countries.
The soft-spoken Dr Balaram says he is shortly retiring from NASA. Now he wants to help Indian students get attracted to the wonders of space and hopes to contribute more towards outreach in India.
He said his hands-on training at IIT Madras was instrumental in the success of flying Ingenuity. There are literally hundreds of students like him who can blossom and make India proud, he said.