NASA: Mars Helicopter Creates History in Its First Flight
On Monday, NASA's groundbreaking helicopter Ingenuity soared into the thin air above Mars' dusty red surface, becoming the first aircraft to fly propelled in space. The achievement was announced as the moment for the Wright Brothers.
NASA : NASA's experimental Mars helicopter lifted from the planet's dusty red surface into thin air on Monday, becoming the first powered, operated flight on another planet. The achievement was announced as the moment for the Wright Brothers.
In fact, the mini 4-pound (1.8-kg) copter called Ingenuity brought a scrap of wing fabric from the 1903 Wright Flyer, which made similar history in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
"We can now assert that humans have flown a rotorcraft on another world," project manager MiMi Aung addressed her team.
After receiving data from the Perseverance rover, which stood watch more than 200 feet (65 metres) away, flight controllers in California reported Ingenuity's brief hop. Ingenuity tagged along on Perseverance's journey to Mars, sticking to the rover's belly upon their landing in an ancient river delta in February. The $85 million helicopter demonstration was regarded as a high-risk, high-reward venture.
“Each world only gets one first flight,” project manager MiMi Aung pointed out earlier this month. She described it as the "ultimate dream" during an early Monday NASA webcast.
For more than three anguishing hours, Aung and her team waited to find out whether the pre-programmed flight 178 million miles (287 million kilometres) away had succeeded. Anxiety was heightened by the fact that a software error had stopped the helicopter from taking off a week ago, leaving engineers struggling to find a solution.
As the performance was eventually announced, applause, cheering, and laughter erupted in the operations centre. There was even more excitement as the first black and white photo of Ingenuity's shadow hovering over the surface of Mars appeared on the screens.
Perseverance then captured breathtaking colour photographs of the helicopter falling back to the surface, eliciting even more applause. Initially, details were scarce, but NASA had hoped for a 40-second flight. The helicopter had to scale 10 metres (3 metres) and then float for up to 30 seconds before turning to the rover to get off.
All this required twin, spinning, counter rotor blades of the helicopter to spin at 2,500 rpm – five times faster than on Earth. Engineers had to construct a helicopter small enough — with blades spinning fast enough — to generate this otherworldly lift with an atmosphere just 1% the thickness of Earth's. At the same time, it had to be tough enough to endure the Martian wind and cold.
Ingenuity is a barebones 1.6 feet (0.5 metres) tall, a spindly four-legged chopper that has been in the works for more than six years. Its fuselage, which houses all of the batteries, heaters, and sensors, is around the size of a tissue box. The largest components are the carbon-fibre, foam-filled rotors: Each pair is 4 feet (1.2 metres) long from tip to tip.
The helicopter has a solar panel on top to recharge the batteries, which are critical for survival during the minus-130 degree Fahrenheit (minus-90 degree Celsius) Martian nights. NASA selected a flat, relatively rock-free patch measuring 33 feet by 33 feet for Ingenuity's airfield (10 metres by 10 metres). It turned out to be just a few hundred feet (30 metres) from the original landing site in Jezero Crater. On April 3, the helicopter was freed from the rover and landed on the airfield.
After controllers sent up a software correction for the rotor blade spin-up, flight commands were sent out on Sunday. From the time it debuted with Perseverance last July until now, the small chopper with a big job has drawn attention from all over the world.
Arnold Schwarzenegger got in on the act, tweeting his support for Ingenuity over the weekend. “Get to the chopper!” he yelled, echoing a line from his 1987 science-fiction film “Predator.” Up to five helicopter flights are scheduled, each of which will be more ambitious than the last.
If successful, the demonstration could pave the way for a fleet of Martian drones to provide aerial views, transport packages, and act as scouts for astronauts in the coming decades. High-altitude helicopters on Earth could prosper as well — imagine choppers effortlessly navigating the Himalayas.
The team at Ingenuity has until the beginning of May to complete the test flights. This is due to the rover's primary goal, which is to collect rock samples that might contain signs of past Martian existence in preparation for a return to Earth a decade from now. Perseverance will keep an eye on Ingenuity until then. Percy and Ginny are nicknames given to flight engineers. “Big sister is watching,” said Elsa Jensen of Malin Space Science Systems, the rover's lead camera operator.