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NASA says its Mars helicopter is ready for a historic first flight


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NASA says its Mars helicopter is ready for a historic first flight

This is all experimental, so it's quite possible that Ingenuity will fail.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter is seen here in a close-up taken by Mastcam-Z, a pair of zoomable cameras aboard the Perseverance rover.
Enlarge / NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter is seen here in a close-up taken by Mastcam-Z, a pair of zoomable cameras aboard the Perseverance rover.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

NASA has resolved the issues with its Ingenuity helicopter on the surface of Mars and is ready to fly.

 

The space agency announced on Saturday that it will attempt to fly the small, 1.8kg helicopter early on Monday. The first flight is scheduled to take place at about 3:30am ET (07:30 UTC). It will take a few hours to relay data from the helicopter to the Perseverance rover, and then to an orbiting satellite and back to Earth. So NASA anticipates receiving the first data back from Mars some time after 6:15am ET.

 

The space agency will begin a livestream at that time, sharing any photos and reactions from scientists and engineers as humans attempt to fly a powered vehicle on another world for the first time.

 

NASA originally planned to fly Ingenuity about one week ago, but during a pre-flight test engineers encountered a problem. When the engineers sent a command to the helicopter to test the rotation of its two counter-rotating blades, each of which is 1.2 meters long, an issue prevented the test from occurring.

 

Since then the mission team, led by project manager MiMi Aung at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, worked on a software fix to that entailed adding a few commands to the flight sequence. Since this was a change to software that had been in a stable configuration for about two years, it required extensive testing and validation before being sent to the helicopter.

 

But the software patch seems to have worked, because on Friday the helicopter completed a full-speed spin test, setting up the opportunity for a historic flight. For this first flight, Ingenuity will rise a couple of meters above the ground, hover in the air for about 20 to 30 seconds, and then land. Notably, the first flight of the Wright Brothers' airplane lasted for 12 seconds.

 

If this test flight is successful, NASA will get more bold in future forays, eventually flying the helicopter for up to 300 meters distance at a time.

 

This is all experimental, so it's quite possible that Ingenuity will fail. But NASA deserves credit for taking risks in order to push the frontier of exploration out that little bit further. And in attempting to fly on Mars, NASA will be gathering valuable data for an ambitious mission to Titan, Dragonfly, that will attempt to hop across the enigmatic moon's sand dunes about a decade from now.

 
First Flight of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter: Live from Mission Control

 

NASA says its Mars helicopter is ready for a historic first flight

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NASA says its Mars helicopter is ready for a historic first flight This is all experimental, so it's quite possible that Ingenuity will fail. Enlarge / NASA’s Inge

Ingenuity helicopter successfully flew on Mars: NASA   NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, with all four of its legs deployed, is pictured before dropping from the bell

Ingenuity helicopter successfully flew on Mars: NASA

 

NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, with all four of its legs deployed, is pictured before dropping from the belly of the Persever

NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, with all four of its legs deployed, is pictured before dropping from the belly of the Perseverance rover in March 2021

 

NASA's experimental Mars helicopter rose from the dusty red surface into the thin air Monday, achieving the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.

 

The triumph was hailed as a Wright Brothers moment. The mini 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) copter named Ingenuity, in fact, carried a bit of wing fabric from the 1903 Wright Flyer, which made similar history at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

"We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet," project manager MiMi Aung announced to her team.

 

Flight controllers in California confirmed Ingenuity's brief hop after receiving data via the Perseverance rover, which stood watch more than 200 feet (65 meters) away. Ingenuity hitched a ride to Mars on Perseverance, clinging to the rover's belly upon their arrival in an ancient river delta in February.

 

The $85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward.

 

"Each world gets only one first flight," project manager MiMi Aung noted earlier this month. Speaking on a NASA webcast early Monday, she called it the "ultimate dream."

 

< Please view the video at the source page. >

 

Aung and her team had to wait more than three excruciating hours before learning whether the pre-programmed flight had succeeded 178 million miles (287 million kilometers) away. Adding to their anxiety: A software error prevented the helicopter from lifting off a week earlier and had engineers scrambling to come up with a fix.

 

Applause, cheers and laughter erupted in the operations center when success was finally declared. There was even more when the first black and white photo appeared on the screens, showing Ingenuity's shadow as it hovered above the surface of Mars. Next came the stunning color images of the helicopter descending back to the surface, taken by Perseverance, resulting in even more applause.

 

Details were initially sparse, but NASA had been aiming for a 40-second flight. The helicopter was supposed to rise 10 feet (3 meters), hover for up to 30 seconds, then pivot toward the rover and land close to where it took off.

 

To accomplish all that, the helicopter's twin, counter-rotating rotor blades needed to spin at 2,500 revolutions per minute—five times faster than on Earth. With an atmosphere just 1 percent the thickness of Earth's, engineers had to build a helicopter light enough—with blades spinning fast enough—to generate this otherworldy lift. At the same time, it had to be sturdy enough to withstand the Martian wind and extreme cold.

 

More than six years in the making, Ingenuity is a barebones 1.6 feet (0.5 meters) tall, a spindly four-legged chopper. Its fuselage, containing all the batteries, heaters and sensors, is the size of a tissue box. The carbon-fiber, foam-filled rotors are the biggest pieces: Each pair stretches 4 feet (1.2 meters) tip to tip.

 

The helicopter is topped with a solar panel for recharging the batteries, crucial for its survival during the minus-130 degree Fahrenheit (minus-90 degree-Celsius) Martian nights.

 

NASA chose a flat, relatively rock-free patch for Ingenuity's airfield, measuring 33 feet by 33 feet (10 meters by 10 meters). It turned out to be less than 100 feet (30 meters) from the original landing site in Jezero Crater. The helicopter was released from the rover onto the airfield on April 3. Flight commands were sent Sunday, after controllers sent up a software correction for the rotor blade spin-up.

 

The little chopper with a giant job attracted attention from around the world, from the moment it launched with Perseverance last July until now. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger joined in the fun, rooting for Ingenuity over the weekend via Twitter. "Get to the chopper!" he shouted, re-enacting a line from his 1987 sci-fi film "Predator."

 

Up to five helicopter flights are planned, each one increasingly ambitious. If successful, the demo could lead the way to a fleet of Martian drones in decades to come, providing aerial views, transporting packages and serving as scouts for astronauts. High-altitude helicopters here on Earth could also benefit—imagine choppers easily navigating the Himalayas.

 

Ingenuity's team has until the beginning of May to complete the test flights. That's because the rover needs to get on with its main mission: collecting rock samples that could hold evidence of past Martian life, for return to Earth a decade from now.

 

Until then, Perseverance will keep watch over Ingenuity. Flight engineers affectionately call them Percy and Ginny. "Big sister's watching," said Malin Space Science Systems' Elsa Jensen, the rover's lead camera operator.

 

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