Humanity’s first helicopter on Mars has been cleared for a historic liftoff.
The device will soar into the skies over Jezero Crater on Sunday (April 11) in a 40-second flight, about four times as long as the Wright brothers’ first flight on Earth more than 117 years ago. The first data, successful or not, should return to Earth on Monday (April 12) around 3:30 am EDT (0830 GMT).
The flight plan has the Martian whirlybird hovering just 9 feet (3 meters) above the surface, collecting black-and-white data from landmarks below it along with high-definition horizon video and engineering data. The flight will also take place under the watchful eye of the Perseverance rover, parked about 200 feet (60 meters) from the Ingenuity launch site.
Related: How to watch the first online flight of the Mars helicopter wit
“Naturally, the team is working very hard to be prepared for that moment. [of flight]so when we see that first data, it works … it will be an amazing moment, “said Tim Canham, Ingenuity’s operations leader, during a press conference broadcast live from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. , on Friday (April 9).
We have been imagining flight on Mars in fiction since at least 1890, when Robert Cromie’s “A Plunge Into Space” showed Martian aircraft taking off in the thin atmosphere. While the drone-sized Ingenuity will be a simple top-down sojourn, the vision for its flight is no less ambitious.
The Martian atmosphere has a volume of only 1% that of Earth, so the helicopter must provide more lift than it would need to fly on Earth. The helicopter must also fly autonomously, as the controllers on Earth are stationed too far away to move it around the crater. You need to keep recharging from the sun and survive nighttime surface temperatures of minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius). It took years of testing, flights of varying success in inner tubes, and a long trip to Mars to get that far.
MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at JPL, said she will be most excited by the black and white camera footage the helicopter will transport back to Earth, showing her view from the air. “The images will be inspiring,” he said at the briefing, admitting that it will be difficult to imagine how he will feel as the team has not tried to take on the success of the ambitious flight test.
If Ingenuity does this and transmits data as planned, the downward facing black and white camera images will be taken about 30 times per second and will have the ability to track features on the surface; In the long term, once all of these images reach Earth, controllers will be able to estimate the speed and direction of motion by observing the drift of the features.
There will also be a 13 megapixel camera on Ingenuity pointing towards the horizon, which will take some pictures during the flight. Extensive engineering data will also be collected with the images, such as altimeter readings, data that will be used to benefit future flying vehicles. NASA’s long-term vision is to employ drones that could one day scale to areas beyond the reach of current rovers, such as possible regions of habitability on the desert-like red planet. Drones could later scout for robots and humans alike and help plot routes even more efficiently than we do from orbit today.
Solar-powered ingenuity will inform the design of these future robots. The helicopter team has 30 Martian suns (approximately 31 days on Earth) to make the first provisional flights. Assuming Ingenuity survives the first flight, it will rest and transmit data before attempting a second flight with lateral movement. Subsequent flights will occur every three or four Martian suns. The fifth flight, if the Ingenuity gets that far, it will be an opportunity to really fly. “It is most likely unlikely that it will land safely because we will go to unsurveyed areas,” Aung said.
The ingenuity is the product of about five years of altitude chamber flight tests simulating Martian conditions at JPL, including a test of the small helicopter in 2019 that went exactly as planned. So the engineers know that it is theoretically possible to fly on Mars and they have a weather station available in Perseverance to approve or reject the flight given current conditions, but there is still the element of uncertainty at the moment.
Additional challenges arise when returning everything from ingenuity and perseverance. For example, the planned five-minute flight video from the rover, in 4K definition, would take months to send back to Earth given the availability of bandwidth from the Martian surface via NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to the NASA’s Deep Space Network of dishes that capture information from distant spacecraft.
So JPL plans to pre-select some keyframes from that video and send them back, hoping that at least one of the frames represents Ingenuity taking to the air. The Mastcam-Z panoramic camera team is also simulating shooting from afar, with the aim of getting Ingenuity exactly in the frame from a distance, as it aims to capture images zoomed in and out at the same time.
Its best video resolution is seven frames per second, but only part of that frame will be captured and then compressed to send it back to Earth. It is already being practiced; Mastcam-Z sent a short video of the helicopter accelerating its blade at 50 revolutions per second, but that was on the ground.
Getting the angle right to capture the device in the air will be “really difficult,” said Elsa Jensen, Mastcam-Z uplink operations leader at Malin Space Science Systems, in the same briefing. Mastcam-Z is designed for large swaths of terrain, while Ingenuity flight will only take place in a small part of the camera frame overview. “We hope everything goes well on Sunday, but we know there will be surprises. We train for that,” he said.
The rover team may also try to capture the sound of future Ingenuity flights with Perseverance’s SuperCam microphone, but there are no plans to do so for the first excursion. “It’s very easy if we can hear something from that distance,” Canham said, adding that they are discussing when to record. “Worse comes to worst, we may not get much of anything,” he joked about the audio images.
The last time NASA took such an ambitious step on the Red Planet was with the Sojourner rover, a breadbox-sized vehicle that rolled across the surface for a few months in 1997 and curled up against the rocks like a puppy. .
This first Martian mobile vehicle was likewise a test to see if the rovers could face the rugged terrain of Mars away from immediate help from Earth. It worked beyond expectations, pioneering a generation of NASA rover explorers (Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, and now Perseverance) who have searched for water and signs of ancient habitability; Perseverance, if all goes according to plan, will take part in a larger sample return mission that will bring the rocks it stores back to Earth for detailed analysis.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, told the news conference that Ingenuity would play a similar role in NASA history to that of Sojourner. “We are ready for another historic moment,” he said.
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