NASA schedules first helicopter test flight to Mars for Monday – Spaceflight Now

One of the cameras on the Mastcam-Z instrument on the Perseverance rover took this photo of the Ingenuity helicopter on April 9. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU

After fixing some long-range problems, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter will attempt the first such flight in another world on Monday in a demonstration that could open the door to a new era of interplanetary aerial explorers.

Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California sent out commands for Ingenuity’s test flight on Sunday, setting the stage for lift-off in a short jump up and down at 3:31 a.m. EDT (0731 GMT ) of Monday.

It will take almost three hours for the ground teams to receive data confirming the flight’s result. The signals will bounce from the helicopter to the Perseverance rover, which launched the drone to the Martian surface on April 3, and then to an orbiter flying overhead to transmit the data to Earth.

NASA TV will broadcast live coverage from JPL’s operations center beginning at 6:15 am EDT (1015 GMT) on Monday as officials await data on the results of the Ingenuity jump. Once the data begins to flow, engineers will analyze the signals for the telltale signature that the helicopter took and successfully landed.

The images will then begin to be transmitted back to Earth from cameras onboard the Ingenuity and cameras on the Perseverance rover that observe the flight from a range of about 200 feet (60 meters).

NASA officials expect Monday’s fully automated flight to last around 40 seconds, as the drone takes off at an altitude of about 10 feet (3 meters), flies momentarily there, then turns to point in a different direction before land back on your four carbons. fiber legs.

The first images from the helicopter’s black-and-white navigation camera could return to Earth shortly after Monday’s test flight. The spacecraft will then go to sleep and recharge its batteries before transmitting color images.

Meanwhile, a high-definition zoom camera on the Perseverance rover’s mast will attempt to capture still images and video of the helicopter’s flight.

“We are very excited,” said Tim Canham, Ingenuity Operations Leader at JPL. “It could be an amazing day. We are all nervous, but we are confident that we put in the work and time, and we have the right people to do the work. “

If the first flight is as successful as NASA hopes, Ingenuity could fly four more times in the coming weeks, testing bolder flight profiles before wrapping up the test flight campaign next month. NASA then wants to free Perseverance to continue its primary science mission of finding and collecting Martian rock samples for eventual return to Earth.

Lori Glaze, head of NASA’s planetary science division, described the Ingenuity helicopter as a “high-risk, high-reward” experiment that could pave the way for future aerial vehicles to explore Mars and other planets.

The $ 80 million Ingenuity helicopter has a mass of just 1.8 kilograms. It weighed 4 pounds on Earth, or 1.5 pounds in Martian gravity, but its lightweight blades will have to generate lift in an atmosphere less than 1% the density of Earth at sea level.

Bobby Braun, director of planetary science at JPL, said the helicopter and its support team on Earth will attempt to produce a “Wright Brothers moment” in another world.

Recognizing the Ingenuity flight as another aviation first, NASA installed a postage stamp-sized piece of cloth from the Wright brothers’ first plane, known as the Flyer, onto the Mars helicopter. The cloth covered one of the airplane’s wings during its maiden flight over Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903.

Another piece of cloth and a fragment of spruce wood from the Wright Flyer flew to the moon on the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. While the Wright brothers used cloth and wood for their planes, Ingenuity is made from carbon fiber skins and ” exotic metals, ”said Bob Balaram, Ingenuity chief engineer at JPL.

Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s science division, called Ingenuity’s first flight attempt “a historic moment like it has analogs in 1903: controlled flight on a different planet.”

Since Perseverance deployed the Ingenuity helicopter from its belly earlier this month, the helicopter has shown that it can recharge its batteries using a solar panel and stay warm on the frigid Martian night. Ground crews also sent commands to unlock the rotor blades, which span nearly 4 feet (1.2 meters) from end to end, for a 50 rpm low speed spin test.

But a problem interrupted the drone’s rotor startup sequence on Mars during a high-speed spin attempt on April 9. The fast-turn test of the Ingenuity’s counter-rotating blades was supposed to be a final check before officials moved on to the helicopter’s first flight. , then scheduled for April 11.

The command sequence for the high-speed spin test ended early as the helicopter was trying to switch the flight computer from “pre-flight” to “flight” mode, according to NASA. A watchdog timer system designed to monitor the command sequence expired before completing the roll test, prematurely ending the helicopter roll test.

The JPL teams have come up with two tactics to solve the scripting problem. One approach involves adjusting the command sequence to “slightly alter the timing” of the helicopter’s transition from pre-flight flight mode, according to MiMi Aung, a project manager at Ingenuity.

The other solution is a disruptive movement and would further delay the first flight of the helicopter. That option is to reinstall the modified software on Ingenuity’s flight computer, replacing code that had worked flawlessly for the helicopter for nearly two years, Aung wrote in a post on NASA’s website.

Testing the flight using the altered command sequence is easier, and it worked Friday during a successful high-speed spin test of the helicopter’s rotors at close to 2,500 rpm. Tests show that the solution will allow the helicopter to switch to flight mode and take off in 85% of the attempts.

“We also know that if the first try doesn’t work on Monday, we can try these commands again, with a good chance that subsequent attempts in the following days will work even if the first one doesn’t work,” Aung wrote. “For these reasons, we have chosen to follow this path.”

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover took a selfie with the Ingenuity helicopter, seen here about 13 feet (3.9 meters) from the rover in this image taken April 6 by the WATSON camera (Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering) at SHERLOC (Habitable Scanning). Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals environments), located at the end of the rover’s long robotic arm. Perseverance’s selfie with Ingenuity is made up of 62 individual images stitched together once they are sent back to Earth. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

Meanwhile, teams on Earth continue to seek the backup option of updating Ingenuity’s software. The new software has already been linked to the Perseverance rover, which could transmit the code to Ingenuity via the rover’s wireless communications link to the helicopter if necessary.

“If our initial flight approach doesn’t work, the rover will send the new flight control software to the helicopter,” Aung wrote. “Then we will need several additional days of preparation to load and test the new software at Ingenuity, redo the rotor tests in this new configuration and recycle for a first flight attempt.”

Aung compared the test flight attempt to a rocket launch.

“We are doing everything we can to make it a success, but we also know that we may have to scrub and try again,” he wrote. “In engineering, there is always uncertainty, but this is what makes working in advanced technology so exciting and rewarding. We have to continuously innovate and develop solutions to new challenges. And we can try things that others have only dreamed of. “

“Ingenuity is a technological experiment,” Aung wrote. “As such, our plan is to go further and learn by doing. We take risks that other missions cannot, weighing each step carefully. “

If all works, the carbon fiber rotors will spin at nearly 40 times per second to lift the Ingenuity helicopter off the ground. The rotor blades themselves have a mass of just 35 gains, or a weight of just over 1 ounce, and they have to spin faster than helicopter rotors on Earth.

“A helicopter flies generating lift,” Aung said. “On Earth it is pushing air, so the blades push the air and lift is generated. On Mars, where the atmospheric density is so thin, about 1% compared to here, there are fewer molecules to push. That means we have to compensate … We have to spin much faster than on Earth. “

The superlight weight of the helicopter, coupled with ultra-fast control algorithms to fine-tune the flight of the craft 500 times per second, required advanced materials and computing power.

“We just couldn’t do it 15 or 20 years ago,” Aung said.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @ EstebanClark1.

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