Mars 2020 Mission Brings First Helicopter to Mars Using Lockheed Martin-Designed System
When NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) needed to safely transport the world’s first non-Earth helicopter to Mars via deep space travel, the team faced quite the puzzle.
The helicopter was a potential late addition to the Perseverance Mars rover, but the JPL team had their hands full with the intense task of completing the helicopter itself. Perseverance might be able to carry the helicopter — named Ingenuity — to Mars, but only if a viable deployment solution could be completed in short order.
Lockheed Martin was up for the challenge.
A lean-but-mighty team got to work designing and building the Mars Helicopter Delivery System (MHDS), which would transport and deploy Ingenuity for flight on the Red Planet. JPL provided constraints on how much power the team could use, what signals were available, the amount of space the MHDS could take up and how much the system could weigh.
“We had to figure out how to hold onto all the moving parts with minimal rover resources such as actuation signals available to us,” recalled Jeremy Morrey, Lockheed Martin MHDS principal engineer. “We had a wicked challenge to do more with less.”
With Ingenuity itself weighing a featherweight four pounds, the team had to design creatively to protect the fragile aircraft without adding too much weight to the rover.
“It ended up being quite a collaboration. The solar system has never seen anything like Ingenuity before,” said Morrey. “And we leveraged a broad diversity of talent at Lockheed Martin in order to make this happen.”
Creating a new electrical connector method
The process of designing the MHDS even led to the program filing two patents: one for a miniaturized structural launch lock restraint, and the other for a brand-new electrical connection system for the helicopter.
The new connector technology uses commercial off-the-shelf products to transmit many electrical signals while adding zero mass to the helicopter. This was critical to the team, since they were dealing with such a delicate object that wasn’t meant to withstand additional weight.
“This tech can even be leveraged in the future for other lightweight deployables that can’t use traditional connectors,“ said Morrey.
Ron Deppen, Lockheed Martin electrical connector subject matter expert, devised the concept of the unconventional connector, and worked with Lockheed Martin MHDS Engineering Designers Spencer Connor and Jeff Bank to see the process through from ideation to design to creation.
“There are a lot of decisions made at the engineering level that can have significant implications on the manufacturing level,” said Connor. “This was an opportunity to see how everything happened in order."
Designing new processes to get the job done
With the new technology came new work processes.
Working in Lockheed Martin’s failure analysis lab as a mechanical engineer for over 32 years, Lynn Cain has spent many hours troubleshooting part issues and solving mechanical failures on everything from cracked tanks to failed batteries to many (many) electrical cables and connectors. But she had never worked on something quite like this.
“All our work is varied,” said Cain. “You never know what is going to come through the door, but I stumbled into something really special with this project.”
Cain’s work on the manufacturing side of things for the MHDS was unprecedented, but the failure analysis lab was the only place that held the specialized equipment needed to complete the job. Cain worked with the team to proof out the concept and later collaborated with Production Planner Tiffany Chanthavong to produce the final flight components.
All this work led the team to an innovative, complete Mars Helicopter Delivery System, which was delivered to JPL in May 2019 after system testing onsite at Lockheed Martin’s Littleton, Colorado, campus. The MHDS will be put to the true test about two months after Perseverance’s Mars landing in February 2021, when Ingenuity makes history as the first helicopter deployed and flown on another planet.