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NASA Tests Exploration Aircraft on Mars, Earth

The agency has achieved new records for its Mars helicopter designs both on Earth and Mars

Scarlett Evans

November 28, 2023

2 Min Read
Illustration depicting three different of models of NASA’s solar-powered Mars helicopter, Ingenuity
Illustration depicting three different of models of NASA’s solar-powered Mars helicopter, IngenuityNASA Mars Exploration

NASA has achieved a world first, testing its aircraft designs on Earth and Mars at the same time. 

On Earth, the agency tested a new rotor blade that it said could be used for next-generation exploration helicopters, with the test taking place at its Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California. 

Meanwhile, the agency’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter took flight on the red planet, achieving new altitude and airspeed records.

“Our next-generation Mars helicopter testing has literally had the best of both worlds,” said Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity’s project manager. “Here on Earth, you have all the instrumentation and hands-on immediacy you could hope for while testing new aircraft components. On Mars, you have the real off-world conditions you could never truly re-create here on Earth.” 

The rotor blades being tested are made of carbon fiber and are four inches longer than the rotor blades currently on Ingenuity. NASA said it thinks the sturdier, longer design could help support bigger, “more capable” Mars helicopters.

The challenge, according to the agency, is moving these blades at supersonic speeds which can cause turbulence and destabilize the blade. However, tests at the Jet Propulsion Lab showed positive results. 

“We spun our blades up to 3,500 rpm, which is 750 revolutions per minute faster than the Ingenuity blades have gone,” said Tyler Del Sesto, Sample Recovery Helicopter deputy test conductor at JPL. “These more efficient blades are now more than a hypothetical exercise. They are ready to fly.”

Related:NASA Commissions $10M UAVs for Mars Mission

At the same time, the agency has achieved new highs with its Ingenuity helicopter.

“Over the past nine months, we have doubled our max airspeed and altitude, increased our rate of vertical and horizontal acceleration and even learned to land slower,” said Travis Brown, Ingenuity’s chief engineer. “The envelope expansion provides invaluable data that can be used by mission designers for future Mars helicopters.”

In December, Ingenuity is expected to perform two high-speed flights during which it will execute a special set of pitch-and-roll angles designed to measure its performance.

“The data will be extremely useful in fine-tuning our aero-mechanical models of how rotorcraft behave on Mars,” said Brown. “On Earth, such testing is usually performed in the first few flights. But that’s not where we’re flying. You have to be a little more careful when you’re operating that far away from the nearest repair shop because you don’t get any do-overs.”

About the Author(s)

Scarlett Evans

Assistant Editor, IoT World Today

Scarlett Evans is the assistant editor for IoT World Today, with a particular focus on robotics and smart city technologies. Scarlett has previous experience in minerals and resources with Mine Australia, Mine Technology and Power Technology. She joined Informa in April 2022.

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