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Researchers Complete First Real-World Study of Martian Helicopter Dust Dynamics

(Hoboken, N.J. – Jan. 31, 2023) – Mars is a dusty planet. From tiny dust devils to vast storms that shroud the planet, dust is a constant challenge for research missions. That was especially true for Ingenuity, the rotorcraft that since February 2021 has been exploring Mars alongside NASA’s Perseverance rover. Now, researchers at Stevens Institute of Technology, the Space Science Institute, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have completed the first real-world study of Martian dust dynamics based on Ingenuity’s historic first flights on the Red Planet, paving the way for future extraterrestrial rotorcraft missions.

The work, reported in the December 2022 issue of Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, could 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.

“There’s a reason that helicopter pilots on Earth prefer to land on helipads,” said Jason Rabinovitch, a co-author and assistant professor at Stevens. “When a helicopter lands in the desert, its downdraft can stir up enough dust to cause a zero-visibility ‘brownout’ — and Mars is effectively one big desert.”

Rabinovitch has been working on the Ingenuity program since 2014, joining the Jet Propulsion Laboratory soon after the concept was first pitched to NASA and creating the first theoretical models of helicopter dust lifting in the dusty Martian environments. At Stevens, Rabinovitch continues to work with JPL and investigates plume-surface interactions during powered descent of a spacecraft. He also models supersonic parachute inflation and geophysical phenomena, such as plumes on Enceladus.

Studying dust dynamics on another planet isn’t easy, explained Rabinovitch. “Space is a data-poor environment. It’s hard to send videos and images back to Earth, so we have to work with what we can get.”

To overcome that challenge, Rabinovitch and colleagues at JPL used advanced image-processing techniques to extract information from six helicopter flights, all low-resolution videos captured by Perseverance. By identifying tiny variations between video frames, and the light intensity of individual pixels, the researchers were able to calculate both the size and the total mass of dust clouds kicked up as Ingenuity took off, hovered, maneuvered, and landed.

The results were within striking distance of Rabinovitch’s engineering models — itself a remarkable achievement, given the limited information available to the team way back in 2014, when Rabinovitch and his colleagues were writing back-of-the-envelope calculations intended to support the original design of Ingenuity.

The research shows that, as predicted, dust is a significant consideration for extra-terrestrial rotorcraft, with Ingenuity estimated to have kicked up about a thousandth of its own mass (four pounds) in dust each time it flew. That’s many times more dust than would be generated by an equivalent helicopter on Earth, though Rabinovitch cautions that it’s tricky to draw direct comparisons.

“It was exciting to see the Mastcam-Z video from Perseverance, which was taken for engineering reasons, ended up showing Ingenuity lifting so much dust from the surface that it opened a new line of research,” said Mark Lemmon, senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute Mars Science Laboratory and first author of the study.

“When you think about dust on Mars, you have to consider not just the lower gravity, but also the effects of air pressure, temperature, air density — there’s a lot we don’t yet fully understand,” Rabinovich said. Still, he added, that’s what makes studying Ingenuity’s dust clouds so exciting.

A better understanding of brownouts could help NASA extend future robotic missions by keeping solar panels operational for longer or make it easier to land delicate equipment safely on the dusty Martian surface. It could also offer new insights into the role of wind and wind-carried dust in weather patterns and erosion, both on Earth and in extreme environments around the Solar System.

Dust lifting during a helicopter flight on Mars.

– Stevens –

About Stevens Institute of Technology

Stevens Institute of Technology is a premier, private research university in Hoboken, New Jersey, overlooking the Manhattan skyline. Since its founding in 1870, technological innovation and entrepreneurship have been the hallmarks of Stevens’ education and research. Within the university’s three schools and one college, Stevens prepares its more than 8,000 undergraduate and graduate students for an increasingly complex and technology-centric world. Our exceptional students collaborate closely with world-class faculty in an interdisciplinary, student-centric, entrepreneurial environment, readying them to fuel the innovation economy. Academic and research programs spanning finance, computing, engineering and the arts expand the frontiers of science and leverage technology to confront the most challenging problems of our time. Stevens is consistently ranked among the nation’s leaders in ROI and career services and is in the top 1% nationally of colleges with the highest-paid graduates.

About Space Science Institute

Space Science Institute (SSI) is a nonprofit, public benefit research and education 501(c)(3) corporation founded in 1992 with a vision to expand humankind's understanding and appreciation of planet Earth, our Solar System, and the universe beyond. SSI's mission is to (a) enable scientists to make new discoveries, (b) increase science and technology literacy for people of all ages and backgrounds, and (c) inspire youth to pursue science-technology education and career opportunities. It is headquartered in Boulder, Colorado, with locations distributed across the U.S. and internationally.

SSI scientists work on many prestigious space missions, including but not limited to the Mars Exploration Rovers, Rosetta, Mars and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiters, Mars Science Lander, Juno, ExoMars, OSIRIS-REx, and Mars 2020. Areas of research also include heliophysics, observational astronomy (with such facilities as Hubble Space Telescope, SOFIA), and exoplanets (Kepler). SSI's National Center for Interactive Learning (NCIL) fosters collaboration between scientists and educators to create nationally touring exhibits for museums and libraries, provide professional development and webinar training for science educators, and build popular digital games and apps with over a million hits.

The projects here are based upon work funded by Caltech-JPL through award number 1607215 to Space Science Institute and by Arizona State University through award number 15-712. The research was carried out at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (80NM0018D0004)

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of NASA, ASU, Caltech-JPL, or SSI.

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