NASA continues to construct the Titan Dragonfly helicopter. Listed below are its rotors

Ingenuity, the helicopter supporting NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover on its mission, was a huge success. Accumulating the power of the first controlled flight on another celestial body, it has performed spectacularly in its 28 flights and holds both speed and distance records. But it might not be long as a much larger, more capable helicopter is currently being developed. And when it eventually explores Titan over the next decade, it has an excellent chance of breaking many of Ingenuity’s records.

Known as the Dragonfly, this helicopter is currently under development on Earth. But it recently achieved a significant milestone by completing testing of its rotor blades in a unique test chamber at NASA’s Langley Research Center.

The Transonic Dynamics Tunnel (TDT) differs from a standard wind tunnel in several ways. Most helpful in this case is its ability to use gases other than just Earth-normal air. In the case of Dragonfly’s test, the TDT filled with a heavy gas designed to mimic Titan’s nitrogen-rich atmosphere.

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UT video describing the Dragonfly mission.

In this environment, the rotors were turned, turned, accelerated and slowed down. In some tests, one of the two rotors that make up one of Dragonfly’s four coaxial pairs (for a total of eight rotors). This should mimic a potential failure scenario where one (or more) of the rotors is not working. Dragonfly is designed to do without several functional rotor blades, making it much more robust than its smaller predecessor. In fact, the problem that will eventually kill Ingenuity (lack of electrical power) won’t be that big of a deal for Dragonfly, since it uses a thermal radioisotope generator instead of a set of solar panels on its smaller predecessor.

In order to fulfill that promise, however, the rotors must work well enough for Dragonfly to fly on another world, which is what the tests at the TDT are for. Inside the chamber, sensors such as accelerometers and pressure sensors were added to the rotors under test. Their data was used to validate Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) models of rotor performance.

Some of the CFD models used to simulate the stresses and strains on the rotors were originally developed to work with wind turbines. However, the data from the TDT matched well with the models used to design Dragonfly, suggesting the rotors should be able to withstand the challenging environment on Titan’s surface.

UT advocates titanium.

That’s a good thing, too, because the ship they have to hold is huge. Measuring about 12 feet long and 12 feet wide, Dragonfly looks like a typical terrestrial drone on steroids. Its eight rotors will allow it to hop from one location to another on the planet’s surface, collecting data from various locations on the cloaked moon.

However, this mission goal is still a long way off, as rotor testing is a very early step in the overall testing program that the project will undergo. But the designers and engineers still have some time before the 2027 launch window. And even more time before the vehicle finally arrives at its destination in 2034. There’s still a lot to test before then, just probably not in intriguing chambers like TDT.

Learn more:
NASA – Rotors for Mission to Titan tested in Langley’s Transonic Dynamics Tunnel
Subtitles – The Dragonfly mission has some ambitious scientific goals to achieve when it arrives at Titan
Subtitles – NASA’s Dragonfly helicopter will explore this region of Titan
PSU – Aerospace engineers are developing a drone for NASA’s concept mission to Titan

main image:
Researchers look at the rotors tested at TDT.
Credit – NASA/Harlen Caplen

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