NASA is about to make history once again. In the near future, the space agency will launch its fourth rover, Perseverance, to the Red Planet. Its mission is twofold. First, it will collect samples of planetary soil that will be retrieved during another mission years from now. Second, Perseverance will carry the first helicopter to Mars.

The helicopter has been named ‘Ingenuity’. It is a highly advanced, tech-heavy piece of equipment that owes its existence to some impressive engineering. As you might expect, the materials chosen to build the helicopter are critical to its success. Carbon fiber is one of those materials.

According to Wired contributor Daniel Oberhaus, Ingenuity has to be extremely lightweight and equally durable if NASA expects it to survive on Mars. Therefore, materials were chosen only after rigorous testing.

Altitude and Flight Time

NASA hopes that Ingenuity’s successors will eventually be flying over Mars as easily as drones are flown here on planet Earth. However, getting there will take some time and effort. The atmosphere at the surface of Mars is similar to Earth’s atmosphere at some 96,000 feet. In other words, it is quite thin. This means the helicopter needs to have significant lifting power commensurate with its size.

The other problem NASA is running in to is limited flight time. In order to keep the entire Ingenuity package at under 4 pounds, batteries have to be fairly small. The batteries are charged with solar energy. Ingenuity is only capable of sustained flight for about 90 seconds at a time.

Four pounds doesn’t seem like a whole lot to hold in your hand or carry on your shoulders. But it is a lot of weight when you are trying to get a small helicopter into the air. Add to that the thinness of Mars’ atmosphere and the fact that you are working with very small batteries, and it is easy to see why 90 seconds of flight time is about all Ingenuity can muster.

Lightweight and Strong Materials

Salt Lake City’s Rock West Composites explains that carbon fiber would be an ideal material for Ingenuity’s construction. When you consider both weight and strength, very few materials offer what carbon fiber brings to the table. It’s no wonder NASA turned to it.

Carbon fiber is used mainly for the rotor blades that will lift Ingenuity into the air. However, the blades are not solid carbon fiber. Rather, they are foam wrapped in a carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP).

The foam gives the rotor blades the thickness and length they need to be effective. Wrapping them in carbon fiber gives them the strength and rigidity they need to get the job done. Perhaps better batteries will allow for solid carbon fiber rotor blades in the future. But for now, the foam-carbon fiber hybrid works well enough.

Taking Photos, Giving Instructions

NASA engineers say Ingenuity should take to the air over Mars sometime next spring. A few test flights will be required to make sure things are working properly. Then Ingenuity will be turned over to an autonomous system. It will take to the air to snap pictures and give instructions to Perseverance.

Engineers say the information provided by Ingenuity will help Perseverance find better paths to get where it is going. It will also allow engineers to cover more ground through aerial observation. Ingenuity will be able to cover in a day what it takes Perseverance a month to cover.

NASA is poised to take the next big step to better understanding Mars. It is going to be exciting to learn what Perseverance and Ingenuity can teach us.