NASA is targeting no earlier than April 8 to fly a helicopter on Mars

Jan 27, 2020
NASA is targeting no earlier than April 8 to fly a helicopter on Mars

NASA is targeting no earlier than April 8 for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopterto make the first attempt at powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet. Before the 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) rotorcraft can attempt its first flight both it and its team must meet a series of daunting milestones.

Ingenuity remains attached to the belly of NASA's Perseverance rover, which touched down on Mars Feb. 18. The rover currently is in transit to the "airfield" where Ingenuity will attempt to fly. Once deployed, Ingenuity will have 30 Martian days (31 Earth days) to conduct its test flight.

Flying in a controlled manner on Mars is far more difficult than flying on Earth. The Red Planet has significant gravity (about one-third that of Earth's) but its atmosphere is just 1% as dense as Earth's at the surface. During Martian daytime, the planet's surface receives only about half the amount of solar energy that reaches Earth during its daytime, and nighttime temperatures can drop as low as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius), which can freeze and crack unprotected electrical components.

"While getting deployed to the surface will be a big challenge, surviving that first night on Mars alone, without the rover protecting it and keeping it powered, will be an even bigger one,” said Bob Balaram, Mars Helicopter chief engineer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

"Ingenuity is an experimental engineering flight test – we want to see if we can fly at Mars," said MiMi Aung, project manager for Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at JPL. "There are no science instruments onboard and no goals to obtain scientific information.”

Ingenuity will run its rotors to 2,537 revolutions per minute and, if all final self-checks look good, lift off. After climbing at a rate of about three feet per second (one meter per second), the helicopter will hover at 10 feet (three meters) above the surface for up to 30 seconds. Then, the Mars Helicopter will descend and touch back down on the Martian surface. Once the first few flights are complete the mission control team will develop a plan on how to move forward with Ingenuity.

The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was built by JPL, which also manages the technology demonstration for NASA Headquarters. It is supported by NASA's Science Mission Directorate, the NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, and the NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate. NASA's Ames Research Center and Langley Research Center provided significant flight performance analysis and technical assistance.

At NASA Headquarters, Dave Lavery is the program executive for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. At JPL, MiMi Aung is the project manager and J. (Bob) Balaram is chief engineer.

Posted by Keith Stein at 6:33 PM DCNewsroom



Image: NASA, JPL.

We, led by the Jet Propulsion Laboratories and NASA, and now making amazing strides in the exploration of Mars, the solar system, and outer space. As a kid, reading all I could about the exploration of space, I could not imagine something as unique and scientifically taxing as the remote helicopter operation on the surface of Mars controlled from Pasadena, CA.

Ingenuity is what is known as a technology demonstrator - a project that seeks to test a new capability for the first time, with a limited scope of operations. Previous groundbreaking technology demonstrations include the Mars Pathfinder rover Sojourner and the tiny Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats that flew by Mars in 2018.

Ingenuity features four specially made carbon-fiber blades, arranged into two rotors that spin in opposite directions at around 2,400 rpm - many times faster than a passenger helicopter on Earth. It also has innovative solar cells, batteries, and other components. Ingenuity doesn't carry science instruments and is a separate experiment from the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover.

NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter will make history's first attempt at powered flight on another planet and Mars' thin atmosphere makes it difficult to achieve enough lift. Because the Mars atmosphere is 99% less dense than Earth's, Ingenuity has to be light, with rotor blades that are much larger and spin much faster than what would be required for a helicopter of Ingenuity's mass on Earth.

It can also get extremely cold at Jezero Crater, where Perseverance has landed with Ingenuity attached to its belly. Nights there dip down to minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius). While Ingenuity's team on Earth has tested the helicopter at Martian temperatures and believes it should work on Mars as intended, the deep damaging cold will push the design limits of many of Ingenuity's parts to their very limits.

In addition, flight controllers at JPL won't be able to control the helicopter with a joystick. Oh, no.
Communication delays are an inherent part of working with spacecraft across interplanetary distances, where JPL radioed commands take 11 minutes to cover the 124,240,000 miles to the space copter. Commands will need to be sent well in advance, with engineering data coming back from the spacecraft long after each short flight has taken place. In the meantime, Ingenuity will have a lot of autonomy thanks to its own software to make its own decisions about how to fly to a waypoint and keep itself warm.




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