Mars has a dusty surface. Dust is a continuous challenge for scientists, from tiny dust devils to massive storms that engulf the planet. That’s especially true for Ingenuity, the rotorcraft that has been exploring Mars alongside NASA’s Perseverance rover since February 2021. Scientists in the Stevens Institute of Technology, the space Science Institute and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory carried out the original real-world study of Martian dust dynamics based on Ingenuity’s historic very first flights on the Red Planet, paving the way for future extraterrestrial rotorcraft missions.
Published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, the work was reported as follows: Planets, might support NASA’s Mars Sample Return Program, which will retrieve samples collected by Perseverance, or the Dragonfly mission that will set course for Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, in 2027.
“helicopter pilots on Earth prefer to land on helipads,” Jason Rabinovitch, a co-author and assistant professor at Stevens, said in a statement. ‘When a helicopter lands in a desert, its downdraft can stir up enough dust to bring about a zero visibility brownout, and Mars is effectively one large desert.
Rabinovitch continues to be working on the Ingenuity program since 2014, joining the Jet Propulsion Laboratory shortly after the idea was first pitched to NASA and making the original theoretical models of helicopter dust lifting on the dusty Martian environment. Rabinovitch keeps up his work with JPL at Stevens and investigates plume surface interactions throughout the powered descent of a spacecraft. Additionally, he models supersonic parachut inflation and geophysical phenomena such as plumes on Enceladus.
It is not simple to study dust dynamics on another planet, Rabinovitch said. “Space is a poor environment when it comes to data. It’s hard to send video clips and images back to Earth, so we must work with what we can get.”
To deal with this, Rabinovitch as well as associates used advanced image processing methods at JPL to extract information from six helicopter flights, all low-resolution videos captured by Perseverance. By identifying small variations among video frames as well as the light intensity of specific pixels, scientists could calculate both the size as well as total mass of dust particles clouds kicked set up as Ingenuity had taken off, hovered, maneuvered and landed.
The results were within striking distance of Rabinovitch’s engineering models, which is itself a remarkable achievement given the limited information available on the team in 2014 when Rabinovitch and his colleagues have been composing back-of-the-envelope calculations to support the initial design of Ingenuity.
Study shows that dust is a significant factor for extraterrestrial rotorcraft, as forecasted, with Ingenuity believed to have knocked up about a thousandth of its own mass (four pounds) each time it flew. That’s many times more dust than is produced on Earth by an equivalent helicopter, even thought Rabinovitch cautions that it’s difficult to draw direct comparisons.
“It had been exciting to see the Mastcam-Z video from Perseverance, which was taken for engineering reasons, wound up showing Ingenuity lifting a great deal of dust from the surface it opened a new type of research,” said Mark Lemmon, senior research scientist in the space Science Institute Mars Science Laboratory and first author of the study.
‘Whenever we think about dust on Mars, we have to consider not just lower gravity, but also the effects of air pressure, heat, air density… there is a lot we still do not understand,” said Rabinovich. However , he added, that’s the reason why studying the dust clouds of Ingenuity extremely exciting.
Brownouts could help NASA extend future robotic missions by keeping solar power systems operational for longer time frames, and make it a lot easier to land expensive equipment safely on the Martian surface. It might also present new insights into the function of wind and wind-driven dust in weather patterns and erosion on Earth and in extreme environments throughout the Solar System.
Read more: DOI: 10.1029/2022JE007605