NASA’s Marshelicopter Ingenuity made its first powered flight to another planet on Monday. It flew to a height of three meters, flew there for 30 seconds, and then landed again. NASA confirms that it is a milestone in aviation, declaring the take-off and landing site an airport.
It was a video of a few pictures: a Mars helicopter on Earth in a red mountain landscape on Mars, a few frames hanging a little higher, and then it was on Earth again.
Despite this simplicity, the GIF you shot in the control room of NASA’s Creative Engineering team, eagerly awaits the sign of life from the 49-centimeter-high Mars helicopter on Monday. Nail-biting was broadcast live.
Radio signals to and from Mars take about 20 minutes to travel, so direct control over them is impossible. Dexterity must manage its flights independently. After sending the command, the team could only wait. The recovery lyrics were read from the screen, even before the movie. “Innovation reports on accidental performance, takeoff, flight, flight, landing, landing, and rotation.”
NASA engineers wearing mouth masks behind computer screens had to make an effort to avoid falling into each other’s arms, like Team Leader MiMi Aung who would express her excitement with powerful triumphal gestures and tear up plans in case something went wrong.
The dexterity stopped at the bottom of the Marskar Perseverance, which landed on Mars on February 18th. On April 3, Marskar lowered the helicopter to the bottom of Mars, then set off to a safe distance of about 100 meters.
The creativity is powered by two counter-rotating Styrofoam foam rounds covered in carbon fibers, each weighing 35 grams. The gravity on Mars is only 38 percent of that on Earth, but the air pressure is only 0.6 percent on planet Earth, so the rotors have much less air to fight it. Thus, the blades are 1.2 meters long and can rotate at a great top speed of 40 revolutions per second.
The helicopter, weighing just 1.8 kg, was tested extensively in NASA test rooms with the same air pressure and gusts of gentle winds as on Mars. On top of the rotors is a solar panel that charges lithium-ion batteries. 35Wh capacity, about three smart phone batteries, is not only intended for motors, but also for keeping electronic devices warm in an environment where they can freeze at 100 degrees.
The maximum flight time is 90 seconds, but the first flight was much less than that at 39.1 seconds. The ingenuity took off at 12:33 Mars time, so late in the morning Mars that the batteries were somewhat charged. Also, the helicopter had already warmed up in the sun, but the flight took place before noon, when the winds could rise and the density of the Martian air could drop.
There are two cameras on board: a color camera for surrounding images, and a black and white camera that is facing down for orientation. Moreover, laser altimeter, gyroscopes, accelerometers and tilt meters aid in navigation.
Scientific measuring tools are not available. The helicopter, which costs $ 85 million, explicitly aims to test the technology, as a prelude to more powerful autonomous aircraft on later interplanetary missions. They can then, for example, explore and photograph the area, take samples, and investigate rocky areas inaccessible by carts.
An example is the NASA drone dragonfly, Which should fly by 2036 in the dense nitrogen atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan, a world of lakes, clouds and a barrage of organic molecules such as methane and ethane. Only the European Huygens probe has landed there before, in 2004.
More flights are on schedule
A previous flight attempt by Ingenuity on April 9 was canceled due to a software bug that prevented the helicopter from entering flight mode. The team worked on two solutions under time pressure, and estimated their probability of success this time at 85%.
Four more flights are planned after Monday’s flight, with creativity continuing to fly longer and longer distances, up to a maximum altitude of 5 meters and 50 meters from the starting point. The flight and landing are filmed by the persistent mother, who in turn is filmed by Ingenuity. With reference to Harry Potter characters, the couple is also known as Jenny and Percy.
NASA conclusively linked the flight to the first powered flight in 1903 by the Wright brothers. Below the Ingenuity Solar Panel is a small Wright Flyer cloth. The piece of Mars from which Ingenuity took off and landed is renamed Airport as Wright Brothers Field.
A copy of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of April 20, 2021