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NASA Uses Two Worlds to Test Future Mars Helicopter Designs
This video combines two perspectives of the 59th flight of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. Video on the left was captured by the Mastcam-Z on NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover; the black-and-white video on the right was taken by Ingenuity’s downward-pointing Navcam. The flight occurred Sept 16. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS Engineers will go beyond the ends of the Earth to find more performance for future Mars helicopters.
For the first time in history, two planets have been home to testing future aircraft designs. On this world, a new rotor that could be used with next-generation Mars helicopters was recently tested at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, spinning at near-supersonic speeds (0.95 Mach). Meanwhile, the agency’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has achieved new altitude and airspeed records on the Red Planet in the name of experimental flight testing.
“Our next-generation Mars helicopter testing has literally had the best of both worlds,” said Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity’s project manager and manager for the Mars Sample Recovery Helicopters. “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.” That includes a whisper-thin atmosphere and significantly less gravity than on Earth.
The next-generation carbon fiber rotor blades being tested on Earth are almost 4 inches (more than 10 centimeters) longer than Ingenuity’s, with greater strength and a different design. NASA thinks these blades could enable bigger, more capable Mars helicopters. The challenge is, as the blade tips approach supersonic speeds, vibration-causing turbulence can quickly get out of hand.
To find a space big enough to create a Martian atmosphere on Earth, engineers looked to JPL’s 25-foot wide, 85-foot-tall (8-meter-by-26-meter) space simulator – a place where Surveyor, Voyager, and Cassini got their first taste of space-like environments. For three weeks in September, a team monitored sensors, meters, and cameras as the blades endured run after run at ever-higher speeds and greater pitch angles.
A dual rotor system for the next generation of Mars helicopters is tested in the 25-Foot Space Simulator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Sept.15. Longer and stronger than those used on the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, the carbon-fiber blades reached near-supersonic speeds during testing. NASA/JPL-Caltech “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.”
At around the same time, and about 100 million miles (161 million kilometers) away, Ingenuity was being commanded to try things the Mars Helicopter team never imagined they would get to do.
Fourth Rock Flight Testing
Ingenuity was originally slated to fly no more than five times. With its first flight entering the mission logbook more than two-and-a-half years ago, the helicopter has exceeded its planned 30-day mission by 32 times and has flown 66 times. Every time Ingenuity goes airborne, it covers new ground, offering a perspective no previous planetary mission could achieve. But lately, Team Ingenuity has been taking their solar-powered rotorcraft out for a spin like never before.
“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 at JPL. “The envelope expansion provides invaluable data that can be used by mission designers for future Mars helicopters.”
Limited by available energy and motor-temperature considerations, Ingenuity flights usually last around two to three minutes. Although the helicopter can cover more ground in a single flight by flying faster, flying too fast can confuse the onboard navigation system. The system uses a camera that recognizes rocks and other surface features as they move through its field of view. If those features whiz by too fast, the system can lose its way.
So, to achieve a higher maximum ground speed, the team sends commands for Ingenuity to fly at higher altitudes (instructions are sent to the helicopter before each flight), which keeps features in view longer. Flight 61 established a new altitude record of 78.7 feet (24 meters) as it checked out Martian wind patterns. With Flight 62 Ingenuity set a speed record of 22.3 mph (10 meters per second) – and scouted a location for the Perseverance rover’s science team.
The team has also been experimenting with Ingenuity’s landing speed. The helicopter was designed to contact the surface at a relatively brisk 2.2 mph (1 mps) so its onboard sensors could easily confirm touchdown and shut down the rotors before it could bounce back into the air. A helicopter that lands more slowly could be designed with lighter landing gear. So, on Flights 57, 58, and 59 they gave it a whirl, demonstrating Ingenuity could land at speeds 25% slower than the helicopter was originally designed to land at.
All this Martian Chuck Yeager-ing is not over. In December, after solar conjunction, 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.”
More About Ingenuity
Ingenuity began its life at Mars as a technology demonstration. It first flew on April 19, 2021, hovering 10 feet (3 meters) for 30 seconds. Four more flights in as many weeks added 499 seconds and saw the helicopter flying horizontally over the surface for 1,171 feet (357 meters). After proving flight was possible on Mars, Ingenuity entered an operations demonstration phase in May 2021 to show how aerial scouting could benefit future exploration of Mars and other worlds.
The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was built by JPL, which also manages the project for NASA Headquarters. It is supported by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley and NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, provided significant flight performance analysis and technical assistance during Ingenuity’s development. AeroVironment Inc., Qualcomm, and SolAero also provided design assistance and major vehicle components. Lockheed Space designed and manufactured the Mars Helicopter Delivery System.
At NASA Headquarters, Dave Lavery is the program executive for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter.
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Last Updated Nov 22, 2023 Related Terms
Ingenuity (Helicopter) Mars 2020 Mars Sample Return (MSR) Explore More
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Rather than mirroring the typical traits of natural features, this structure bears a striking resemblance to a constructed wall. Notably, even there is a reflection of light bouncing off the structure onto the Martian surface.
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9 Min Read Temperatures Across Our Solar System
An illustration of our solar system. Planets and other objects are not to scale. Credits:
NASA What’s the weather like out there? We mean waaaay out there in our solar system – where the forecast might not be quite what you think.
Let’s look at the mean temperature of the Sun, and the planets in our solar system. The mean temperature is the average temperature over the surface of the rocky planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. Dwarf planet Pluto also has a solid surface. But since the gas giants don’t have a surface, the mean is the average temperature at what would be equivalent at sea level on Earth.
An illustration of planets in our solar system showing their mean temperatures. Planets and dwarf planet Pluto are not to scale. NASA Let’s start with our Sun. You already know the Sun is hot. OK, it’s extremely hot! But temperatures on the Sun also are a bit puzzling.
An image of the Sun taken Oct. 30, 2023, by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. NASA/SDO The hottest part of the Sun is its core, where temperatures top 27 million°F (15 million°C). The part of the Sun we call its surface – the photosphere – is a relatively cool 10,000° F (5,500°C). In one of the Sun’s biggest mysteries, the Sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, gets hotter the farther it stretches from the surface. The corona reaches up to 3.5 million°F (2 million°C) – much, much hotter than the photosphere.
So some temperatures on the Sun are a bit upside down. How about the planets? Surely things are cooler on the planets that are farther from the Sun.
Well, mostly. But then there’s Venus.
As it sped away from Venus, NASA’s Mariner 10 spacecraft captured this seemingly peaceful view of a planet the size of Earth, wrapped in a dense, global cloud layer. But, contrary to its serene appearance, the clouded globe of Venus is a world of intense heat, crushing atmospheric pressure and clouds of corrosive acid. NASA/JPL-Caltech Venus is the second closest planet to the Sun after Mercury, with an average distance from the Sun of about 67 million miles (108 million kilometers). It takes sunlight about six minutes to travel to Venus.
Venus also is Earth’s closest neighbor and is similar in size. It has even been called Earth’s twin. But Venus is shrouded in clouds and has a dense atmosphere that acts as a greenhouse and heats the surface to above the melting point of lead. It has a mean surface temperature of 867°F (464°C).
So Venus – not Mercury – is the hottest planet in our solar system. Save that bit of info for any future trivia contests.
Maybe Venus is hotter, but Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun. Surely it gets hot, too?
Mercury as seen from NASA’s MESSENGER, the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury. NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington Mercury is about 36 million miles (57 million kilometers) from the Sun. From this distance, it takes sunlight about three minutes to travel to Mercury. Even though it’s sitting right next to the Sun – relatively speaking – Mercury gets extremely cold at night. It has a mean surface temperature of 333°F (167°C). Daytime temperatures get much hotter than the mean, and can reach highs of 800°F (430°C). But without an atmosphere thick enough to hold in the heat at night, temperatures can dip as low as -290°F (-180°C).
Ahhh, Earth. We know about the weather here, right? Even Earth has some temperatures you may not have heard about.
An image of Earth from the Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR. NASA Earth is an average of 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) from the Sun. It takes about eight minutes for light from the Sun to reach our planet.
Our homeworld is a dynamic and stormy planet with everything from clear, sunny days, to brief rain showers, to tornados, to raging hurricanes, to blizzards, and dust storms. But in spite of its wide variety of storms – Earth generally has very hospitable temperatures compared to the other planets. The mean surface temperature on Earth is 59°F (15°C). But Earth days have some extreme temperatures. According to NOAA, Death Valley holds the record for the world’s highest surface air temperature ever recorded on Earth: 134°F (56.7°C) observed at Furnace Creek (Greenland Ranch), California, on July 10, 1913. Earth’s lowest recorded temperature was -128.6°F (89.2°C) at Vostok Station, Antarctica, on July 21, 1983, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
NASA missions have found lots of evidence that Mars was much wetter and warmer, with a thicker atmosphere, billions of years ago. How about now?
Side-by-side animated images show how a 2018 global dust storm enveloped the Red Planet. The images were taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS Mars is an average distance of 142 million miles (228 million kilometers) from the Sun. From this distance, it takes about 13 minutes for light to travel from the Sun to Mars.
The median surface temperature on Mars is -85°F (-65°C). Because the atmosphere is so thin, heat from the Sun easily escapes Mars. Temperatures on the Red Planet range from the 70s°F (20s°C) to -225°F (-153°C). Occasionally, winds on Mars are strong enough to create dust storms that cover much of the planet. After such storms, it can be months before all of the dust settles.
Two NASA rovers on Mars have weather stations. You can check the daily temps at their locations:
Mars Weather Report From Perseverance Curiosity Daily Weather Report The ground temperature around the Perseverance rover ranges from about -136°F to 62°F (-93°C to 17°C). The air temperature near the surface ranges from about -118°F to 8°F (-83°C to -13°C).
As planets move farther away from the Sun, it really cools down fast! Since gas giants Jupiter and Saturn don’t have a solid surface, temperatures are taken from a level in the atmosphere equal in pressure to sea level on Earth. The same goes for the ice giants Uranus and Neptune.
NASA’s Juno spacecraft took this image during a flyby of Jupiter. This view highlights Jupiter’s most famous weather phenomenon, the persistent storm known as the Great Red Spot. Citizen scientist Kevin M. Gill created this image using data from the spacecraft’s JunoCam imager. Enhanced image by Kevin M. Gill (CC-BY) based on images provided courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS Jupiter’s stripes and swirls are beautiful, but they are actually cold, windy clouds of ammonia and water, floating in an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium. The planet’s iconic Great Red Spot is a giant storm bigger than Earth that has raged for hundreds of years. The mean temperature on Jupiter is -166°F (-110°C).
Jupiter is an average distance of 484 million miles (778 million kilometers) from the Sun. From this distance, it takes sunlight 43 minutes to travel from the Sun to Jupiter. Jupiter has the shortest day in the solar system. One day on Jupiter takes only about 10 hours (the time it takes for Jupiter to rotate or spin around once), and Jupiter makes a complete orbit around the Sun (a year in Jovian time) in about 12 Earth years (4,333 Earth days).
Jupiter’s equator is tilted with respect to its orbital path around the Sun by just 3 degrees. This means the giant planet spins nearly upright and does not have seasons as extreme as other planets do.
As we keep moving out into the solar system, we come to Saturn – the sixth planet from the Sun and the second largest planet in our solar system. Saturn orbits the Sun from an average distance of 886 million miles (1.4 billion kilometers). It takes sunlight 80 minutes to travel from the Sun to Saturn.
This series of images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft shows the development of the largest storm seen on Saturn since 1990. These true-color and composite near-true-color views chronicle the storm from its start in late 2010 through mid-2011, showing how the distinct head of the storm quickly grew large but eventually became engulfed by the storm’s tail. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute Like fellow gas giant Jupiter, Saturn is a massive ball made mostly of hydrogen and helium and it doesn’t have a true surface. The mean temperature is -220°F (-140°C).
In addition to the bone-chilling cold, the winds in the upper atmosphere of Saturn reach 1,600 feet per second (500 meters per second) in the equatorial region. In contrast, the strongest hurricane-force winds on Earth top out at about 360 feet per second (110 meters per second). And the pressure – the same kind you feel when you dive deep underwater – is so powerful it squeezes gas into a liquid.
This colorful movie made with images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is the highest-resolution view of the unique six-sided jet stream at Saturn’s north pole known as “the hexagon.” NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Hampton University Saturn’s north pole has an interesting atmospheric feature – a six-sided jet stream. This hexagon-shaped pattern was first noticed in images from the Voyager I spacecraft and was more closely observed by the Cassini spacecraft. Spanning about 20,000 miles (30,000 kilometers) across, the hexagon is a wavy jet stream of 200-mile-per-hour winds (about 322 kilometers per hour) with a massive, rotating storm at the center. There is no weather feature like it anywhere else in the solar system.
Crane your neck to the side while we go check out the weather on Uranus, the sideways planet.
This is an image of the planet Uranus taken by the spacecraft Voyager 2 in 1986. NASA/JPL-Caltech The seventh planet from the Sun with the third largest diameter in our solar system, Uranus is very cold and windy. It has a mean temperature of -320°F (-195°C). Uranus rotates at a nearly 90-degree angle from the plane of its orbit. This unique tilt makes Uranus appear to spin sideways, orbiting the Sun like a rolling ball. And like Saturn, Uranus has rings. The ice giant is surrounded by 13 faint rings and 27 small moons.
Now we move on to the last major planet in our solar system – Neptune. What’s the weather like there? Well you would definitely need a windbreaker if you went for a visit. Dark, cold, and whipped by supersonic winds, giant Neptune is the eighth and most distant major planet orbiting our Sun. The mean temperature on Neptune is -330°F (-200°C).
And not to be outdone by Jupiter and its Great Red Spot, Neptune has the Great Dark Spot – and Scooter. Yep, Scooter.
Voyager 2 photographed these features on Neptune in 1989. NASA/JPL-Caltech This photograph of Neptune was created from two images taken by NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft in August 1989. It was the first and last time a spacecraft came close to Neptune. The image shows three of the features that Voyager 2 monitored. At the north (top) is the Great Dark Spot, accompanied by bright, white clouds that undergo rapid changes in appearance. To the south of the Great Dark Spot is the bright feature that Voyager scientists nicknamed “Scooter.” Still farther south is the feature called “Dark Spot 2,” which has a bright core.
More than 30 times as far from the Sun as Earth, Neptune is not visible to the naked eye. In 2011, Neptune completed its first 165-year orbit of the Sun since its discovery.
That wraps up forecasting for the major planets.
But there is one more place we need to check out. Beyond Neptune is a small world, with a big heart – dwarf planet Pluto.
New Horizons scientists use enhanced color images to detect differences in the composition and texture of Pluto’s surface. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI With a mean surface temperature of -375°F (-225°C), Pluto is considered too cold to sustain life. Pluto’s interior is warmer, however, and some think there may be an ocean deep inside.
From an average distance of 3.7 billion miles (5.9 billion kilometers) away from the Sun, it takes sunlight 5.5 hours to travel to Pluto. If you were to stand on the surface of Pluto at noon, the Sun would be 1/900 the brightness it is here on Earth. There is a moment each day near sunset here on Earth when the light is the same brightness as midday on Pluto.
So the next time you’re complaining about the weather in your spot here on Earth, think about Pluto and all the worlds in between.
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