NASA recently released a video showing a pair of Mars helicopter rotor blades getting tested at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The test occurred on Sept. 15, just one day before NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter made a record-breaking flight on the Red Planet.
With Ingenuity’s major success, NASA is planning to incorporate helicopter-like drones into future Mars missions too, built with designs more robust than their predecessor — which has completed 66 flights, and counting. The new dual rotor system recently tested at JPL features two carbon-fiber blades measuring more than 50 inches (1.3 meters) in diameter. That's nearly 4 inches (10 centimeters) longer than Ingenuity’s are.
The rotors were tested inside JPL’s 25-Foot Space Simulator, a vacuum chamber used by NASA engineers to expose spacecraft systems to conditions similar to those they will face during a mission. The stainless-steel compartment spans 85 feet (26 meters) in height, and can simulate the conditions of extreme temperatures and solar radiation found in the vacuum of interplanetary space.
Over the course of three weeks, the dual rotors were spun at exponentially greater speeds to test their durability. A NASA video from inside the space simulation chamber shows a Sept. 15 test during which the blades are spun at Mach 0.95, which is nearly the speed of sound.
Coincidentally, Ingenuity completed a record-breaking flight just the next day. On Sept. 16, the Mars helicopter flew its 59th flight across the Martian surface, reaching an altitude of 66 feet (20 meters) — at the time, this marked its highest flight yet.
That record was broken during an Oct. 5 flight, however, during which Ingenuity flew to a height of 79 feet (24 meters).
Ingenuity landed on Mars with NASA’s Perseverance rover in Feb. 2021, and was originally intended to only fly five times in a proof-of-concept demonstration for this sort of flight technology. Now, on an extended mission, the helicopter has spent nearly 2 cumulative hours in the Martian air, and has flown across a total of 9 miles.
The Sept. 16 flight remains a significant milestone, and is notable for its occurrence alongside the terrestrial testing of its successor spacecraft components only the day before.
Ingenuity is a test vehicle itself, which has far surpassed its initial life expectancy — that NASA can execute near-simultaneous interplanetary flight tests of hardware in both simulated and off-world environments speaks immensely to humanity’s progress in space exploration as a whole.
It also undoubtedly highlights the space agency’s determination to continue innovation into the final frontier.
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Josh Dinner is Space.com's Content Manager. He is a writer and photographer with a passion for science and space exploration, and has been working the space beat since 2016. Josh has covered the evolution of NASA's commercial spaceflight partnerships, from early Dragon and Cygnus cargo missions to the ongoing development and launches of crewed missions from the Space Coast, as well as NASA science missions and more. He also enjoys building 1:144 scale models of rockets and human-flown spacecraft. Find some of Josh's launch photography on Instagram and his website, and follow him on Twitter, where he mostly posts in haiku.