“Ingenuity Mars Helicopter” Prototype Joins the National Air and Space Museum Collection

December 15, 2023
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Photograph of an aerial device with two propellers on the top.

The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum has accepted into its collection an aerial prototype of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. The prototype has been donated to the museum by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In April 2021, Ingenuity became the first aircraft to fly in the atmosphere of another planet when it made its first flight on Mars. The prototype NASA has donated to the museum was used in tests at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in a simulated Mars environment and was the first Ingenuity prototype to demonstrate that flight on Mars was possible. The results of those tests gave NASA the confidence to commit to sending Ingenuity there.

“None of Ingenuity’s accomplishments would have been possible without years of development and testing, requiring prototypes and engineering and flight models to learn and better understand design challenges and work through solutions,” said Matt Shindell, curator of planetary exploration at the National Air and Space Museum. “We are excited to bring this crucial piece of this story into our collection.”

In May 2016, the prototype Mars helicopter achieved the first powered, controlled free flight in simulated Mars atmospheric conditions. The test took place inside JPL’s Space Simulator, a 25-foot-wide vacuum chamber that had been evacuated and backfilled with a thin carbon dioxide atmosphere similar to that found on Mars.

The full-scale prototype’s dimensions are very similar to those of Ingenuity. However, because it is a prototype, its components differ slightly from its flown counterpart. The prototype does not have a solar panel or battery because it was connected to an external power source, and its computer and avionics were also kept off-board. Keeping these components external to the prototype reduced its mass and helped to correct for the difference in gravity between Earth and Mars during tests.

The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter prototype joins a robust collection of Mars exploration-related artifacts, including the Mars Pathfinder prototype, the Sojourner rover back-up Marie Curie, the Mars Exploration Rover Surface System Test-Bed and a model of the Curiosity rover. The Ingenuity prototype will go into storage for the immediate future and will eventually be displayed at one of the museum’s two locations.

The National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., is located at Sixth Street and Independence Avenue S.W. and is open every day except Dec. 25 from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is free but timed-entry passes are required to visit. The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is located in Chantilly, Virginia, near Washington Dulles International Airport and is open every day except Dec. 25 from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is free and timed-entry passes are not required, and parking is $15.

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