Flying in the skies of Mars, an Indian-made NASA helicopter

NASA is flying a plane – a helicopter capable of flying in alien atmospheres – at Mars. The 1.8-kilogram helicopter, called Ingenuity, and nicknamed “Ginny,” is part of NASA’s Perseverance rover that was launched in 2020 and is still active on Mars.

The man who designed the plane is Dr. J. Bob Balaram, an Indian national who currently works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL. “Making the Ingenuity helicopter was a challenge as no one believed in it,” said Dr Balaram, who studied mechanical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.

The creation is a marvel of technology, weighing just 1.8kg, made of ultra-light carbon fiber and measuring just half a meter long. The air density on Mars is about one-hundredth that of Earth at sea level, or the density of air at 27,000 meters above Earth, an altitude that existing helicopters have never reached.

To fly Ingenuity, the blades spin at 2,400 and 2,900 rpm, or about 10 times faster than any helicopter on the ground.

Creation is an experiment of sorts to test powered flight in another world for the first time.

The helicopter, mounted on the Perseverance rover, arrived at the surface of Mars like a stowaway on February 18, 2021. The Ingenuity helicopter was deployed to the surface on April 3, 2021.

Once the rover reached a suitable “airport” location, Ingenuity was launched to the surface so it could conduct a series of test flights over a 30-day Martian test window – similar to India’s Chandrayaan rover Pragyan.

India’s historic mission to the moon received an emphatic thumbs up from Dr. Balaram. “Vikram’s landing gives one goosebumps and ISRO should pursue its own goals,” he said.

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His helicopter completed its technology demonstration after three successful flights.

On its maiden flight on April 19, 2021, Ingenuity took off, climbed to about 3 meters above the ground, briefly hovered in the air, completed a spin and landed.

It was a major achievement with a controlled, supported flight in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars. It was also the world’s first extraterrestrial flight.

After that, the helicopter made additional test flights to progressively farther distances and greater altitude. It has so far made 64 flights in the thin Martian atmosphere. He said that the creative journey was like a “Wright Brothers moment” on another planet.

Early next year, an Earth-imaging satellite called Nisar – built jointly by India and the United States – will be launched from Sriharikota. This will be part of the increasingly powerful joint space initiative between the two countries.

The soft-spoken Dr. Balaram says he will soon retire from NASA. Now he wants to help Indian students get attracted to the wonders of space and hopes to contribute more to India’s outreach.

He said that his practical training at IIT Madras was instrumental in the success of Creative Aviation. He said there are hundreds of students like him who can flourish and make India proud.

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