NASA previews first Mars helicopter flights: Every step taken is ‘uncharted territory’

NASA previews first Mars helicopter flights: Every step taken is 'uncharted territory'


NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter is targeting no earlier than April 8 for the first-ever attempt at power and controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet

In a news conference Tuesday, members of the agency’s California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) explained that there are still a “number of challenges ahead” and that every single step of the process is unprecedented. 

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“As with everything with the helicopter, this type of deployment has never been done before,” said Farah Alibay, Mars Helicopter integration lead for the Perseverance rover. “Once we start the deployment there is no turning back. All activities are closely coordinated, irreversible, and dependent on each other. If there is even a hint that something isn’t going as expected, we may decide to hold off for a [Martian day] or more until we have a better idea what is going on.”

Before Ingenuity can even try to fly in the Martian atmosphere, the 4-pound rotorcraft must first be deployed. 

On Mar. 21, the Perseverance Mars rover – which carried Ingenuity to the red planet – dropped its debris shield that protected the helicopter and is currently en route to the 33-by-33-foot “airfield” where Ingenuity will attempt its first flight

Once the rover reaches its flight zone, it will take about a week to get the helicopter up and running. 

The Mars Helicopter Delivery System will rotate and release the helicopter about 5 inches above the surface. Perseverance then has 25 hours to move away to its “rover observation location.” 

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Ingenuity – which will be autonomous and charged by its own solar panel – has a month-long window for up to five test flights.

“We will go through a number of days of commissioning – approximately a week – where we test our sensors, we test our solo mechanism, we test the motors to make sure they spin right. And, we will be very methodical and event-driven as this engineering experiment unfolds,” said Bob Balaram, Mars Helicopter chief engineer at JPL. 

“And then, we will be at a point where we will undertake our first flight and then we will progressively undertake more flights once we understand and analyze all the behavior from that first flight,” he said.

Last week, JPL announced that it had chosen a flight zone just north of Perseverance’s landing site in Jezero Crater.

In the conference, the team of scientists announced they would name the location in honor of their “colleague, mentor and leader,” Jakob van Zyl.

Van Zyl passed away of a heart attack in August of last year and joined JPL in 1986. Ingenuity was one of his final projects and Bobby Braun – JPL’s director for planetary science – said the engineer was the “guiding force” to their team.

Once the rover is charged, has survived a frigid Martian night, and is ready to try to fly, Perseverance will receive and relay flight instructions to the helicopter. 

“Several factors will determine the precise time for the flight, including modeling of local wind patterns plus measurements taken by the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) aboard Perseverance. Ingenuity will run its rotors to 2,537 rpm and, if all final self-checks look good, lift off,” NASA wrote in a Tuesday news release. “After climbing at a rate of about 3 feet per second…the helicopter will hover at 10 feet…above the surface for up to 30 seconds. Then, the Mars Helicopter will descend and touch back down on the Martian surface.”

Several hours later, Perseverance will pass data and possibly images and video from its cameras to the JPL team to determine whether or not their first flight was a success.

Using what is provided to them, the engineers will then understand how best to proceed.

“Every step we have taken since this journey began six years ago has been uncharted territory in the history of aircraft,” Balaram said. “And while getting deployed to the surface will be a big challenge, surviving that first night on Mars alone, without the rover protecting it and keeping it powered, will be an even bigger one.”

What could go wrong?

If there’s an error or mistake, the process may take longer. Assuming that Ingenuity makes it through night one, however, the team will spend the next few Martian days wiggling rotor blades, testing the rotor system and verifying the performance of the inertial measurement unit.

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Worries aside, it’s all making history. 

In recognition of that, a small amount of the material that covered one of the wings of the Wright brothers’ Flyer is aboard Ingenuity – adhered beneath the helicopter’s solar panel with an insulative tape.

Interestingly, the Apollo 11 NASA crew flew a different piece of the material and a splinter of wood from the Wright Flyer during the July 1969 Moon Landing.





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