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Sydney students simulate flight of NASA’s Ingenuity

27 April 2021
The simulations were created using computational fluid dynamics
As part of a group assignment, students from the School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering simulated the flight of NASA's Mars Helicopter before it took its successful maiden voyage.

The School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic students with Associate Professor Ben Thornber. Credit: University of Sydney 

Last week, the NASA Ingenuity Mars helicopter made its maiden voyage, successfully taking to the Martian skies and then safetly returning to the planet's surface moments later.

It was the first time a machine has been flown on another planet. Scientists and engineers say it could be a game-changer for space exploration.

Prior to the flight, a group of School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering students, led by Associate Professor Ben Thornber, completed aerodynamic simulations of the “Mars-copter’s” first flight using a process known as computational fluid dynamics, which is known in the industry as simply "CFD".

CFD involves computational and numerical analysis and it allows engineers and scientists to map how liquids and gasses flow. In this instance, CFD is one tool that can help researchers understand the interaction between Ingenuity's rotors and the Martian atmosphere.

The students hope their models will be used by NASA to better understand the complex flow fields generated by the aircraft's coaxial rotor configuration – a configuration where rotors are mounted one above another. 

Students Shaka Chu and Jack Park have led the project. Credit: University of Sydney

They also hope their computations will help NASA engineers and scientists better understand Ingenuity's interaction with Martian wind and the Mars Perseverance Rover.

The team says their approach is essential to understanding how spacecraft fly and operate, as it is impossible to accurately mimic all space conditions on Earth.

“Ingenuity’s test flight is an important milestone in space exploration as it demonstrates the efficacy of helicopter technology on Mars, which has conditions quite different to Earth,” said Shaka Chu.

“On Earth, helicopters rely on lift created by the fast spinning of their rotors, however they operate under Earth’s atmospheric and gravitational conditions,” said Mr Chu.

“On Mars, flying conditions are quite different. Firstly, the atmosphere  is composed predominantly of carbon dioxide at one-hundredth the density of sea level air, meaning that Ingenuity must displace enormous volumes of Martian atmosphere downwards to stay aloft. Secondly, Ingenuity also experiences only one third of the Earth’s gravitational force making Earth-based testing extremely challenging,” said Jack Park.

“There are no humans or engineers on Mars, which is why computational engineering is so important," he said. 

Associate Professor Ben Thornber said: “Computations including the complex geometry of the Rover are enormously challenging, but thanks to our new computational models we can deliver important insights to help understand and advance upon the flight performance of this unique helicopter."

Luisa Low

Media and PR Adviser (Engineering & IT)

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