As an engineer, what will you be watching for during the Ingenuity test flights? You talk like you’ve already completed the hardest parts of the mission.
You absolutely got it. To all to us, we know this vehicle. We’ve flown the [test] vehicles so many times, the tens and tens of times, in flight chambers. We stressed the engineering development model and the flight model and tested it? How did it survive the trip? The main thing is that we want to learn. If anything unexpected happens, how do we get the information so that we can feed that information into the next generation of [flight] vehicles? That’s what drives us now.
You’re already thinking about new flying vehicles for Mars or other worlds?
Absolutely. There is something deep that drives you when you do so much work for so many years, right? For us, that drive is adding an aerial dimension to space exploration. Not just a spacecraft in space or rovers on the surface: We’ll also have the ability to fly around in the way we want to. Adding that aerial dimension will be useful in many ways. Rovers need scouts that can see far ahead, high-definition scouts that can get a clear picture of where you are. Astronauts in the future will want to explore places they can’t get to.
Now, what is it possible to build? How can we fulfill the vision?
Can you go bigger than Ingenuity? Could you have giant helicopters zooming around on Mars?
We’re at a 1.2-meter diameter system [Ingenuity’s flying rotors] because that’s the largest that would fit in the Perseverance rover, and that’s the largest mass they could give us. For future helicopters, we’re looking at a three- or three-and-a-half meter diameter [rotor], and a mass of about 15 kilograms. Anything larger than that, the floppiness of the system comes into play [and makes the helicopter unstable]. A system like that could carry a one-kilogram payloads. That’s the vision.
What kind of science could you do with a one-kilogram payload flying around on Mars?
Oh, the science community has lots of ideas about instruments! They are also coming up with [potential] payloads that are getting lighter and lighter. And maybe we could get to a two-kilogram payload. Unfortunately, Mars just doesn’t have enough atmospheric density to make it safe to fly anything bigger.
You’re adamant that Ingenuity is not a “drone.” What’s wrong with that word?
I often get getting teased about not using the word “drone” for the Mars helicopter, but I feel very strongly about it, for the following reason: We are just getting over the fundamentals. This is a pathfinder mission to show, How do you build it and how do you operate it? We’re breaking the paradigm, but it has a lot further to go. Once [flying machines] become a norm — which is our dream, which is why we work so hard — then yes, there will be Mars drones at that point.
There is another flying machine already in the works, the Dragonfly mission that will fly on Titan in 2036. Do you collaborate with that team?
Dragonfly is quite different. It’s a large system, a spacecraft-class instrument, because there is so much atmosphere on Titan. However, testing the aerial vehicle is still a first-time event. How do you spin for the first time without vibrating and shaking apart? Everything that we had to solve, Dragonfly will also be doing that. It will be fantastic to share the lessons we’ve learned about how to the aerial vehicle and how do you simulate the [alien] flight environment on Earth.