NASA Tests its Next-Generation Mars Helicopter Blades

Artist illustration of three solar-powered Mars helicopters from NASA: Ingenuity (upper right), along with the proposed design for Sample Recovery Helicopter to be use on the future NASA-ESA Mars Sample Return Mission (foreground) and a concept for a future Science Helicopter (upper center). (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

While NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter continues to break records for both airspeed and altitude while it explores Jezero Crater on the Red Planet, NASA engineers back on Earth are hard at work testing carbon fiber blades for next-generation Mars helicopters that could exceed the performance of Ingenuity on future missions to Mars, specifically with the planned Mars Sample Return mission that NASA hopes to accomplish sometime in the 2030s.

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Astrobiologists Detect a Signature of Life Remotely. Don’t get too Excited, Though, it was With a Helicopter Here on Earth

Chirality is a word normally found in biological textbooks that will occasionally pop up in the astronomy community, usually when discussing potential biosignatures.  Typically the term is explained by analogy with left and right hands – how the molecules are curved in one specific way or another, similarly to how human hands are formed either as left or right.  These two curvatures of the molecules are mirror images of each other, but not exactly the same.  Until recently, detection of chirality has focused on in situ measurements, such as those on Mars where molecules can be sampled directly.  Now, however, a team led by Drs. Lucas Patty and Jonas Kühn at the University of Bern, has managed to detect chirality remotely using some impressive new technology.

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NASA Crashes a Helicopter With 15 Dummies Inside on Purpose: Watch the Video

Crash test dummy mayhem after the NASA helicopter crash test on August 28, 2013. Credit: NASA/Langley Research Center.

Not only did NASA purposely crash a Marine helicopter today, but they also stuffed 15 crash test dummies inside for a group “crash” party and filmed the event from every angle imaginable. The crash test took place at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia and engineers dropped an old Marine CH-46E helicopter fuselage from a height of about 9 meters (30 feet), traveling at about 48 km/h (30 mph) to test improved seats and seatbelts and gather data on the odds of surviving a helicopter crash.

“We designed this test to simulate a severe but survivable crash under both civilian and military requirements,” said NASA lead test engineer Martin Annett. “It was amazingly complicated with all the dummies, cameras, instrumentation and the collaborators, but it went well.”

The fuselage hit hard, as evidenced by the video and images NASA has released. Thirteen instrumented crash-test dummies and two un-instrumented manikins had a rough ride, as did some of the 40 cameras mounted inside and outside the fuselage. Preliminary observations indicate good data collection, which will take months to analyze.

The CH-46E helicopter fuselage ready for its crash test. Credit: NASA/Langely Research Center.
The CH-46E helicopter fuselage ready for its crash test. Credit: NASA/Langely Research Center.

Researchers used the cameras as well as onboard computers, which data from 350 instrumentation points, to record every move of the 10,300-pound aircraft and its contents. The helicopter’s unusual black-and-white-speckled paint job — a photographic technique called full field photogrammetry — also aided in the data collection effort.

“High speed cameras filming at 500 images per second tracked each black dot, so after everything is over, we can plot exactly how the fuselage reacted structurally throughout the test,” said NASA test engineer Justin Littell.

NASA will use the results of both tests in efforts to improve helicopter performance, efficiency and safety. Researchers also want to increase industry knowledge and create more complete computer models that can be used to design better and safer helicopters.

You can see more images and video at the Langely Research Center’s Flickr page.