Mars Ingenuity Led by Grainger Engineer MiMi Aung

It’s no small thing to fly a small thing on another planet.

Fall 2021

Ingenuity, a helicopter weighing less than two kilograms, lifted off from the surface of Mars on its first mission in April 2021. Because of Mars’ thin atmosphere, it needed to generate five times more lift than it would have needed on Earth – using rechargeable batteries that provide less juice than a typical laptop. The planet’s magnetic field is inconsistent, so, rather than a compass, Ingenuity’s navigation system relies on a camera that tracks the Sun.

“Feasibility of flight on Mars was questioned by many at the start. And reasonably so,” according to MiMi Aung, an alumna of the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering who has worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab for more than 30 years.

Ingeniuty team celebrates flying helicopter on Mars
Members of NASA's Ingenuity helicopter team in the Space Flight Operations Facility at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory react to data showing that the helicopter completed its first flight on April 19, 2021.

She knows how tough those questions were, as leader of the Ingenuity project. But, with shake-down runs out of the way, Ingenuity is now in operation – helping its larger cousin, the Perseverance rover, plot a course.

“The constraints that we faced were extremely demanding…but our team jumped at the opportunity, approaching the challenge systematically. Starting with the fundamentals, predicting the lift, drag, dynamics through system analysis and simulations and designing a control system around the predicted dynamics. Building and testing a series of systems that ultimately met the stringent requirements. This took outstanding feats from all the technical disciplines involved – flight controls, aerodynamics, mechanical, electrical, software, firmware, thermal, telecommunications, materials, and processes. The list continues,” she told Grainger Engineering students not long after Ingenuity’s first flights.

“For the system design to converge, every technical discipline had to excel in their own area and had to thoroughly understand the system context. Really hard! But also really fun in a stressful and exhilarating way, as we overcame these challenges that looked daunting at the start.”