NASA’s $80 million Ingenuity helicopter overcame a software glitch, turned its carbon fiber composite rotors and took off from the dusty Martian surface early Monday to become the first aircraft to fly on another planet – a moment that could pave the way for future interplanetary flights.
Ingenuity’s 4-foot counter-rotating rotors, spinning at more than 2,500 rpm, were instructed to change their attitude and penetrate deeper into the rarefied atmosphere to ascend from the floor of Jezero crater at around 3:30 a.m. EDT.
This still image, taken from a video of the 19th. April 2021, shows the ingenuity of NASA’s first helicopter flight to Mars.
The Perseverance rover, seen from a safe distance, climbed the 3-meter-high Ingenuity, hovered, rotated on site and then landed to complete a test flight that lasted only about 40 seconds.
That was more than enough to make space history.
Now we can say that people have been flown to another planet in a helicopter! Elite MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, spoke about her remote social team. We’ve been talking about our Wright brothers on Mars for so long, and the time has come.
The story doesn’t tell us what Orville and Wilbur did after their first successful flight. I imagine two brothers hugging each other. Well, I’m almost hugging you now. … We flew to Mars together, and we have a shared moment for our Wright brothers.
Data confirming this historic flight arrived on Earth three hours after the flight, transmitted by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Along the way, data was collected nearly 16 minutes before it crossed the 178-million-mile gap between Mars and Earth.
The Ingenuity helicopter takes a picture of its shadow on the Martian surface, among the tracks of the Preseverance outlaw, with the camera pointed downward.
The telemetry data appeared on JPL’s computer screens shortly after 6:30 a.m. EDT. Initially, the team confirmed that the data had been successfully returned. Then, after a thorough examination of his display, JPL pilot Howard Grip announced the results, confirming that Ingenuity had performed an upward turn, taken off, climbed, dropped, landed, landed and dropped.
Altitude measurements confirm that ingenuity made the first powered flight to another planet! he said, as the engineers broke out into applause and cheers.
Moments later, the first images were shown, including a short video recorded by Perseverance showing how the small helicopter climbed, hovered and descended. A clear black-and-white photograph taken by a camera aboard the Ingenuity showed the helicopter’s shadow on the Martian surface, with its rotors clearly visible.
As each image appeared on the screen at the front of the control room, the technical team cheered and clapped in obvious relief.
Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory cheered when the first video from Mars surfaced, showing a small helicopter flying through the thin Martian atmosphere. The project manager, Mimi Aoun, applauds on the far left.
Ingenuity’s brief first flight, from top to bottom, may not seem like much given the performance of cheap drones on Earth. But flying in an atmosphere composed mostly of carbon dioxide, only 1% the thickness of Earth’s, on a planet so remote that direct human control is impossible, and where the temperature drops to more than 100 degrees below zero every night, is a major technological challenge.
The Ingenuity mission could lead to more sophisticated drones being sent to Mars and elsewhere in the solar system to bring cameras and scientific instruments to places inaccessible to rovers or, eventually, astronauts.
This contrivance was transferred to Mars, bolted to the belly of the Perseverance rover, which was launched on the 18th. February landed in the Jezero crater. Later, the rover landed on the surface with the helicopter and retreated to observe the first of five short test flights.
The helicopter is equipped with two cameras, but has no scientific instruments on board. It was added to the Perseverance mission solely to determine the feasibility of positive-energy flight in the thin atmosphere of the Red Planet.
Background of Ingenuity Flight
The first test flight was scheduled for the 11th. April scheduled. Two days earlier, however, the rotor rotation test had been interrupted by the helicopter’s flight software, which had failed to switch to flight mode as planned.
JPL engineers analyzed the telemetry and proposed two solutions. Some additional commands to the control software were needed, the approach should have worked about 85% of the time.
Another option was to replace the flight software with a modified version that was hoisted aboard the Perseverance and stayed there. This would eliminate the problem completely, but it would take a few days longer to implement and it would involve at least a little extra risk.
An artist’s impression showing the relative size of the Mars rover Perseverance and the Ingenuity helicopter brought to the Red Planet.
After a thorough analysis, the helicopter team chose the first option.
This solution is the least disruptive to the helicopter, which behaved as we expected until the problem (the timing of the control sequence) was identified, Aung said in an earlier blog post. This is the easiest option because we don’t have to change the configuration.
Four more test flights are planned for the next few days to take the helicopter to slightly higher altitudes and make additional traverses to deploy the compact systems.
Perseverance will then proceed with its primary science mission, leaving the helicopter behind as the rover searches for evidence of past microbial life in ancient lake sediments at the bottom of Jezero Crater.
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