Welcome to Alumni & Corporate Relations
Ingenuity’ may pave way for future aerial vehicles on Mars: Scientist

MUMBAI: In April-May 2021 when the first-ever moment is created in the Red Planet with the maiden flight of a softball-sized helicopter — Ingenuity — it will be a moment of pride for India, as the person who played a key role in designing the helicopter is a student of Rishi Valley School in ’s Madanapalle and an alumnus of IIT-Madras.

He is J.Bob Balaram, the helicopter’s chief engineer, and now with Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at Pasadena in California. The helicopter which is flying to Mars onboard Nasa’s Perseverance rover was named “Ingenuity” by an Indian-origin school girl, Vaneeza Rupani.

Perseverance will touchdown on Mars’ Jezero crater on February 18, 2021. About 60 or 90 days after the landing, Ingenuity is expected to operate if all is a “go”. Addressing the 2020 Mars Society Virtual Convention late on Sunday, Balaram declared: “The helicopter is on its way to Mars and is healthy. Its battery is getting charged and so far it has been charged six times.”

The diameter of Ingenuity is 1.21m with a total mass of 1.8kg and is autonomous. It is designed for five flights, each for 90 seconds progressively reaching an altitude of up to 10m. “Its entire mission will be completed in 30 sol days,” Balaram explained. (“sol” is one Martian day which is 24 hours and 39 minutes).

Balaram said Ingenuity is a technology demonstrator which, if proven successful, can pave the way for future aerial vehicles on Mars. “The sole role of Ingenuity is to provide engineering data,” he added.

According to him, Ingenuity has undergone various pre-launch tests successfully. “We have done everything we can. Still, it is at high risk and there could be a glitch,” Balaram admitted at the convention.

He said that three “R”s — reach, range and resolution — highlight the advantage of helicopters on Mars, adding, “A helicopter can go to places on Mars to obtain data where rovers cannot reach.”

Even as Ingenuity was on its way to the Red Planet, future designs were also being studied such as a hexacopter, a co-axial helicopter and an advanced tech demo design. If they become a reality, they will focus on areas like astrobiology, geophysics and atmospheric science, Balaram said.

At the meeting, New Delhi-based Sagar Dhak of Mars Society announced that the first edition of the planetary aerial vehicle challenge will be held in February 2021, almost coinciding with the landing of Perseverance with Ingenuity. Earlier at the convention, Oscar Castellino — the Mumbai-born opera singer from who composed the “Mars Anthem” and “Rise To Mars” — performed.