Last week, the Ingenuity Mars helicopter made its final flight, far exceeding the expectations of a mission that began nearly three years ago. Now, NASA may be looking at a fixed-wing aircraft to hit the red planet’s skies next.
In 2021 the Perseverance rover landed on Mars carrying a small helicopter under its belly named Ingenuity. The twin rotor craft was a demonstrator to test if a vehicle could fly in the thin Martian air, which is only about one per cent as dense as our atmosphere on Earth.
It became the first aircraft to conduct controlled, powered flight on another planet.
Ingenuity not only proved it can fly and be controlled from Earth, it has far exceeded expectations, making 72 flights spanning almost three years when only five flights were planned. The little helicopter that could made its final flight this week, when one of its rotor blades struck the ground and was damaged.
WATCH: NASA Administrator Bill Nelson announces the end of Ingenuity Mars helicopter
But while the helicopter has shown flight is possible on Mars, it only managed short hops of a few hundred metres at a time, flying about five metres above the ground. That’s because helicopter blades must provide both lift and thrust to move forward, which requires a lot of energy to fly.
Winged aircraft are more efficient because the engines only need to provide forward thrust while the wings do the lifting, giving the aircraft much greater range.
One new concept, recently awarded funding through NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, is proposing a vehicle that can do just that on Mars.
Since 1998, the NIAC program has been granting funding to innovative, unconventional yet technologically feasible ideas in early development. While not all of the winning concepts become reality, many of NASA’s current projects involve ideas funded through this program, including Ingenuity.
This year’s winners, announced earlier this month, receive up to $175,000 US in grants from the space agency. Projects include a better way to measure cosmological distances, a way to collect a sample return from Venus, and swarming spacecraft to explore Proxima Centauri.
Another winning concept is called Mars Aerial and Ground Intelligence Explorer (MAGGIE), and hopes to be the first fixed-wing aircraft to fly on Mars. MAGGIE is unmanned, solar powered, double winged and driven by 14 electric motors. The propellers can be tilted downwards for vertical takeoff then aimed forward for horizontal flight.
Designers of the Mars aircraft suggest it could fly much farther and higher than Ingenuity, covering 179 kilometres per Martian day at an altitude of 1,000 metres. Over the course of a Martian year, which is roughly two Earth years long, the craft could fly 16,046 kilometres, which means it could basically go anywhere on the planet.
During its flights, the aircraft could measure the chemistry of the Martian atmosphere, including looking for traces of methane gas, which could be produced by life (although there are other non-life methods to make that gas). The designers also suggest that the craft could trace the planet’s magnetic field, which is much weaker than Earth’s, and it could search for water ice beneath the surface.
An aircraft like Ingenuity or the proposed MAGGIE offers ways to explore a place like Mars that other methods cannot. It provides a view that fills in the gap between the high perspective of a satellite and the view from the ground.
A winged aircraft’s extended range also enables the exploration of regions considered too rough and dangerous for wheeled rovers.
Landers that have touched down on Mars so far have been sent to safer, relatively flat regions. But Mars has some of the most spectacular scenery in the solar system that has remained inaccessible.
Imagine flying along the slopes of a volcano taller than Mt. Everest, through a canyon as long as the continental U.S. with steep walls rising many kilometres tall. Or, over snowy ice caps at the North and South Poles.
While the MAGGIE project is still in very early development, the idea of flying over exotic Martian terrain would certainly capture the public imagination, as well as provide a detailed survey of potential landing sites when humans eventually do land there.