NASA has flown a helicopter on Mars, and it went brilliantly [Updated]

April 19, 2021 by No Comments

Enlarge / An image from Ingenuity, looking down at the surface of Mars. That’s its shadow.


Monday morning update: NASA and its engineers have done it! They have flown a powered aircraft on another world for the first time.

Shortly before 7 am ET (11:00 UTC), data came streaming to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory via a circuitous route: from the Ingenuity helicopter to the Perseverance rover, from there to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter above the red planet, across space to a large satellite dish in Madrid, Spain, and finally to the California-based facility.

And the data was good. It indicated the helicopter spun up its rotors to 2,500 revolutions per minute, the vehicle then rose to a little more than 3 meters above the surface, hovered, and then descended safely to the surface.

Moments later, the helicopter project manager, MiMi Aung, said, “We can now say human brings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet.” She urged her team to take a few moments to celebrate this flight. She gave them virtual hugs, due to COVID-19. And then she said they could not yet celebrate ultimate success. Ingenuity still needs to fly higher, and farther, Aung said. There are four more flights planned.

All of this occurred about 290 million km from Earth, on a planet with 1 percent the atmosphere of Earth. It was a remarkable moment for NASA and for humanity’s exploration of the cosmos. We now have a new tool to explore areas of worlds, which have at least thin atmospheres, that are inaccessible to rovers. Such a helicopter or drone could also scout ahead for humans on Mars, noted Thomas Zurbuchen, the agency’s chief of science missions.

This side-by-side image shows <em>Ingenuity</em>, as seen from the Mars Perseverance rover, on the ground and then up in the air.
Enlarge / This side-by-side image shows Ingenuity, as seen from the Mars Perseverance rover, on the ground and then up in the air.


Original post: 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, 1.8 kg 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 sometime 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 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 a distance of up to 300 meters 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 Saturn’s moon Titan using the drone-like lander Dragonfly, which 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.

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