NASA reveals its plan for the first helicopter flight on Mars

A mock-up of the helicopter in flight over the Jezero crater on Mars.

A mock-up of the helicopter in flight over the Jezero crater on Mars.
Illustration: NASA / JPL-Caltech

So far, human exploration on Mars has been measured in the circular motion of orbiters over the planet and the meandering paths of rovers on the ground. Early next month, NASA will enter the elusive space between those two realms, with the launch of the box-shaped Ingenuity helicopter.

Equipped with two 2,400-rpm rotors (one positioned on top of the other), solar-powered lithium batteries, and four carbon composite legs, the Ingenuity is scheduled to perform humanity’s first controlled and motorized test flight on another. planet. Now, the NASA team that operates Ingenuity has discovered the area in which the $ 80 million helicopter will take to the Martian skies: a 300-foot elongated zone in the vicinity of the Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars last month. .

“The Perseverance rover carries with it the most advanced suite of scientific instruments that we have ever sent to Mars,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division, at a news conference today. In addition to the rover research team, he brought a special side project – the Mars helicopter.

Like a baby bat clinging to its father in midair, Ingenuity arrived at Jezero Crater tethered to Perseverance’s belly. The helicopter has not yet been deployed, it is still in the safety of the rover’s power supply. But once it splits, the ship’s plan is short and straightforward: take off and float, and if the team is lucky, do it several more times. Each hover is scheduled to last 20 to 30 seconds.

Wit tied to Perseverance's ass in California.

Wit tied to Perseverance’s ass in California.
Picture: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Although much of Mars is wonderfully flat, including the stretch of the ancient lakebed where Perseverance landed, there would be enormous benefits to traversing the planet by air. NASA scientists hope the helicopter charts a way forward for more advanced Martian spacecraft in the future and that it can inform flight missions elsewhere, such as the planned tribulations of Dragonfly on the moon Titan.

Once ingenuity separates from perseverance, the rover will rush out of the area to ensure that the experimental helicopter does not go into the shade before Martian dawn. (You’ll only have enough power left from your umbilical-type connection to the rover to last a night on Mars without solar power, so it’s important that you have free access to sunlight the next day.) Perseverance will go to the newly appointed Van. Zyl Overlook about 200 feet from the helicopter drop site to observe the smallest craft achievement. The viewpoint is not monumental; about 3 feet higher than the flying zone, but high enough for a good view.

Having been tested in simulated Martian atmospheres on Earth (think a vacuum sealed grain silo), the helicopter is programmed to test the real thing not before. than April 8, according to Bob Balaram, Ingenuity’s chief engineer. Because it uses out-of-the-box components that help the helicopter navigate the thin Martian air and transmit information to Perseverance, Ingenuity is truly a computational genius compared to its forebears.

“The particular computer that we are using here at Ingenuity is roughly 150 times faster than the one at Perseverance,” Balaram told a NASA news conference today. “If you add up all the computers all the way back that have flown into the solar system and add it all up, we dwarf it by two orders of magnitude.”

Despite that fact, Ingenuity is still an interplanetary demonstration, which means that the mini helicopter has only a short period of operation. It will have an Earth month to test its wings, uh, rotors, and it could fly up to five times. The NASA team declined to comment on whether subsequent flights could be more ambitious than the first short test.

It is not a group to avoid the opportunity symbolismNASA placed a postage stamp-sized piece of cloth under the helicopter’s solar panel. It is a cloth cut from one of the Wright brothers’ first controlled flight powered aircraft, which flew the Kitty Hawk nearly 120 years ago. The brothers auctioned sleeves of the cloth to raise funds for future flight attempts, and the buyers of one of those fragments provided it to the Mars 2020 team. It is an extremely fitting story arc that the cloth is now found flying once. Plus, a literal world away.


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