After almost three years, the mission of NASA’s Ingenuity Martian helicopter came to an end – after flying 14 times more than expected. The success has historical significance: in addition to demonstrating for the first time the possibility of flight through the atmosphere of another planet, the equipment proved that systems not designed for use in space missions can have long lives in much more inhospitable environments than those found on Earth. .
Ingenuity was both modest and bold. At a very low cost (US$80 million), it was included in the Perserverance rover flight at the last minute, with a good dose of improvisation. To demonstrate flight in the ultra-thin atmosphere of Mars (which is equivalent to that of Earth at an altitude of 24 km), it needed to be light, less than 2 kg, which ruled out the use of an onboard computer developed by NASA to withstand the environment of radiation in deep space.
Introduced in 2001, the RAD750 is based on computer technology from the 1990s and today operates most of NASA’s interplanetary missions, including Perseverance, launched to Mars in 2020. But on its own, it weighs about half a kilogram. For Ingenuity, engineers at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) decided to swap it for a 2015 smartphone chip, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 801, which weighs 14 grams. According to Teddy Tzanetos, project manager, this processor is a hundred times more powerful than anything JPL has ever sent into deep space combined. But would it be able to operate on Mars?
It was a calculated risk, in an experimental and technological mission that had the ambition of carrying out, at most, five flights in just 30 days. He ended up flying 72, flying in total for more than two hours, over almost three years.
On January 18, during its last tour, there was a momentary loss of communication with the brave helicopter shortly before landing, 1 m above the ground. It ended up being resumed, but images revealed that at least one of its propellers was damaged in the descent, which would prevent it from gaining flight again. Therefore, NASA decided to officially end the mission on January 25th. This after surviving more than a thousand Martian days, sandstorms, three emergency landings and a freezing winter.
The news is good for the future of Mars exploration: it indicates that it is possible to develop cheaper and longer-lasting scientific missions, taking advantage of electronic components not originally designed for space use. And, of course, this extends to other worlds, in particular those with an appreciable atmosphere, where aerial vehicles will be able to provide access to regions unreachable by rovers. “The first Martian helicopter leaves behind an indelible mark on the future of space exploration and will inspire fleets of aircraft on Mars – and other worlds – for decades,” Tzanetos said at an event celebrating the end of the mission.
This column is published on Mondays in print, in Folha Corrida.
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