The Smithsonian would like to showcase the first vehicle to achieve powered flight on another world, but with NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter still busy setting records on Mars, the Washington, D.C., institution has accepted the next best thing.
Officials from NASA and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum celebrated the agency’s donation of the Ingenuity aerobatic prototype to the museum’s collection at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, on Friday (December 15). The full-scale prototype was the first to prove that the aircraft could fly in the atmosphere of another planet during tests conducted at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
The prototype’s first free flight in a simulated Mars environment gave NASA the confidence to commit to sending Ingenuity to Mars. The helicopter and its companion rover, Perseverance, landed in Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021.
“This is something that has been at the top of my wish list ever since I heard Ingenuity was flying alongside Perseverance,” Matt Shindel, curator of planetary science and exploration at the National Air and Space Museum, said in an interview with CollectSPACE. .com. “I really wanted to bring to the museum at some point a piece of (the Mars Helicopter) development that would talk about the process of developing this new technology and represent that same technology in future exhibits.”
The prototype flight took place on May 31, 2016 in JPL’s space simulator, a 25-foot-wide (7.6 m) vacuum chamber. The Martian atmosphere was simulated by first evacuating air from the chamber and then backfilling it with a small amount of carbon dioxide.
Related: Mars Prowess Helicopter: The first aircraft to fly on the Red Planet
The prototype was built to be the same size as the rotorcraft transported to Mars, but differed in construction in some important ways.
“The system was still a skeleton,” Ingenuity project manager Teddy Tzanitos said in a 2020 presentation given as part of a workshop on planetary exploration robotics. “It had (infrared) trackballs to track the movement of the helicopter in the room, but there was no power system on board, no on-board computer. It was really just an actuator, but that allowed us to go on our way.” straight ahead.”
“There was a lot of creativity in moving the entire project forward step by step to prepare for launch,” Tzanitos said. “This (the first flight of the prototype) was the big check mark for the project to say: ‘Yes! We can fly controllably in the Martian atmosphere. Let’s move on to the next step.”
The prototype was followed by more complete engineering models integrating the systems needed for what would become the Mars Helicopter. As of Friday, Ingenuity had completed 67 flights, including 63 dedicated to exploring the future path of Perseverance. Her team is now preparing to fly Ingenuity on its longest flight yet – 2,717 feet (828 metres) – far beyond the current distance record of 2,310 feet (704 metres) set by Flight 25 in 2022.
Ingenuity’s 68th flight aims to achieve a top speed of 22.4 mph (36 km/h), which will match the speed record set last October. The jump will take 147 seconds and take the helicopter to a maximum height of 33 feet (10 meters) above the surface of Mars.
As Ingenuity continues to fly, its prototype will begin undergoing maintenance and processing so that the Smithsonian can properly store and display it for years to come. No decision has yet been made on where it will be displayed at the National Air and Space Museum.
“What is sent to Mars, except in rare cases, does not come back to us,” Shindel said. “So what we tend to end up collecting are prototypes and engineering models, which are things that are developed along the way to a successful spacecraft mission and then allow the engineers to solve problems and develop the technology as they go.”
“We are pleased that they can also represent the spacecraft, but what defines their importance to us as curators and why they belong to the museum collection is that they played a pivotal role in the development of the flight mission.” He said. “This prototype is actually a great example of the importance of these historically unknown articles and need to be preserved in museums.”
He follows Collect SPACE.com on Facebook And on Twitter @COLLECTSPACE. Copyright 2023 CollectSPACE.com. All rights reserved.