A small robotic helicopter named Ingenuity made space exploration history on Monday as it took off from the surface of Mars and floated in the blurry air of the red planet. It was the first machine from Earth to fly over another world like an airplane or a helicopter.
The achievement extends the long, extraordinary record of NASA premieres on Mars.
“We flew together on Mars,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager, to her team during the celebration. “And we have this Wright Brothers’ moment together now.”
Like the first flight of an airplane by Wilbur and Orville Wright in 1903, the flight didn’t go far or long, but it showed what could be done. Flying in the thin atmosphere of Mars was a particularly difficult technical endeavor, on the verge of impossible, because there is almost no air to push against. NASA engineers used ultra-lightweight materials, rapidly spinning blades, and powerful computer processing to get Ingenuity going and prevent it from drifting and falling.
And just as the Wright plane changed the way people and goods move around the earth, Ingenuity offers a new mode of transportation that NASA can now use to investigate the mysteries of the solar system. Future robot researchers can use this technology to take on new, unconventional forms.
“What the ingenuity team did,” said Michael Watkins, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where the helicopter was built during a press conference, “gives us the third dimension.” They have now and forever freed us from the surface to explore the planet. “
Ingenuity was different for NASA too – a high risk, high reward, and modest price project where failure was an acceptable outcome.
This approach is more similar to that of nimble space companies like SpaceX than large traditional development programs that meet all possible contingencies to build a full-size machine that needs to work the first time.
Ingenuity was thus a small experiment conducted on NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance, but it has the potential for paradigm-breaking advance.
Perhaps a more advanced helicopter could serve as a scout for a future rover, identifying fascinating locations for closer study and safe routes for the rover to go. Or swarms of helicopters could fly up and down cliffs to examine layers of rock that are too far away or out of sight of the current spacecraft.
There are currently no plans to bring a second helicopter to Mars. But Bob Balaram, Ingenuity’s chief engineer, said he and his colleagues had begun designing a larger Mars helicopter, roughly ten times its mass, that could carry around 10 pounds of scientific equipment.
“I think that would be the sweet spot for next-generation design,” said Dr. Balaram.
On Sunday, mission controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California sent the orders for the test to Perseverance, which landed on Mars in February. Persistence, in turn, relayed orders to Ingenuity, which sat 200 feet away on flat terrain that was chosen as the runway for a series of five test flights.
At 3:34 a.m. Eastern time – it was the middle of Mars day, half an hour past noon, the helicopter turned its rotors as instructed and climbed over the Jezero crater into the Martian sky.
On the surface of Mars, the atmosphere is only 1/100 as dense as that of Earth, not much that helicopter blades can press against. To create enough lift for the four-pound Ingenuity to ascend, its two rotors, each about four feet wide, had to spin in opposite directions at over 2,500 revolutions per minute.
It hovered at a height of about 10 feet for about 30 seconds. Then it rose to the surface again.
But at that moment, nobody on Earth – including the people at NASA – knew what was actually happening. The two spaceships were not in contact with Earth during the test, and Ingenuity had to perform all of its actions autonomously.
It was only three hours later when one of NASA’s other Mars spacecraft, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, flew overhead and Perseverance was able to send the test data back to Earth.
Minutes later, the engineers analyzed the results that showed a successful flight.
Havard Grip, the engineer serving as NASA’s chief pilot for Ingenuity, announced that the helicopter had completed “the first powered airplane flight on another planet.”
NASA officials said they named the runway where Ingenuity Wright Brothers Field took off and landed. A small piece of cloth from the original Wright plane was taped onto Ingenuity and sent to Mars.
Ms. Aung urged her team to celebrate the moment. “Then we’ll get back to work and make more flights,” she said.
With the success of the first trip, up to four more flights could be attempted. The first three, including the one on Monday, are designed to test the basic skills of the helicopter. The second option, which can occur as early as Thursday, is to rise to a height of 16 feet and then ride horizontally for about 50 feet before returning to their original location.
The third flight could fly a distance of 160 feet and then return. Mr Grip said the team hadn’t decided on plans for the last two flights. “We’re talking about going higher, going further, getting faster and expanding the capabilities of the helicopter in that way,” he said.
Ms. Aung said she thought Ingenuity would pressurize the remaining four flights over the next two weeks. She also wanted to push Ingenuity to its limits and cover 600 or 700 meters – or up to 2,300 feet – for the final flight.
“I’m more careful here,” replied Dr. Grip a little hesitant.
NASA plans to complete testing within 30 Mars days of Ingenuity surrendering April 3, so Perseverance can begin the bulk of its $ 2.7 billion mission. Ingenuity was a nice $ 85 million add-on project, but not a prerequisite for Perseverance to be a success.
The lower requirements of a technology demonstration allowed engineers to use a near-off-the-shelf Qualcomm processor, originally designed for cell phones with more processing power than all previous interplanetary spacecraft combined.
The processor, not adapted to the harsh conditions of space, was more prone to radiation interference, but the helicopter needed all of its speed to maintain smooth flight.
The little machine that traveled to Mars on the bottom of Perseverance also caught the imagination of many people.
Just before Perseverance took off for Mars last June, Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator at the time, said, “I’ll tell you, the thing that excites me most as a NASA administrator is preparing to watch a helicopter fly up another world. “
John P. Grotzinger, a professor of geology at the California Institute of Technology and a former project scientist for Curiosity, a former Mars rover that arrived in 2012, said he was also a fan of Ingenuity.
“This is a really viable way to explore the planet because you can cover so much area,” said Dr. Grotzinger.
A helicopter, especially a helicopter that flies in the air of Mars, could only carry a limited number of sensors, and it couldn’t see things as detailed as a rover that can move a robotic arm and push instruments right against a rock.
“But the compromise gives us access to another part of understanding Mars,” said Dr. Grotzinger.
Once the demonstrations are over, Perseverance will drop the helicopter and fly towards a river delta on the edge of the Jezero crater, where sediments and possibly chemical clues to ancient life will be preserved.
Scientists and engineers prepare their instruments for persistence to begin data collection.
These include a laser that has started to vaporize nearby rocks and soils in order to analyze their chemical composition, and an experiment to break down carbon dioxide to produce oxygen. This technology will be the key to giving astronauts air to breathe when they finally set foot on Mars.
In addition to perseverance, two more new visitors came from Earth to the red planet this year.
China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft entered orbit in February. A lander and rover will be released as early as the end of May to attempt to reach the surface of the red planet. If successful, it will be China’s first successful landing on another planet – it has landed on the moon three times already.
The United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe also arrived on Mars two months ago. After its engines were fired on March 29, it entered orbit where it can begin to closely examine the planet’s atmosphere and weather. This phase of scientific research should begin last Wednesday.