NASA's Mars helicopter to make first flight attempt Sunday


NASA's Ingenuity helicopter unlocked its blades, allowing them to rotate freely, on April 7, 2021, the 47th Martian Day, or sol, mission. This image was captured by the Mastcam image-I aboard NASA's Perseverance rover on the next Sun, April 8, 2021. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA's Ingenuity helicopter unlocked its blades, allowing them to rotate freely, on April 7, 2021, the 47th Martian Day, or sol, mission. This image was captured by the Mastcam image-I aboard NASA's Perseverance rover on the next Sun, April 8, 2021. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's ingenuity Mars Helicopter is two days away from humanity's first attempt at a powered, controlled airplane flight on another planet. If all goes according to plan, the 4-pound (1.8 kg) rotary craft should emerge from Mars ' Jezero crater on Sunday, April 11, at 12: 30 a.m. local Martian Solar Time (10:54 a.m. ET), hovering 10 feet (3 meters) above the surface for 30 seconds. Mission control specialists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California expect to get the first data from the first flight attempt the next morning around 4: 15 a.m. EDT.


"Although ingenuity does not carry any scientific instruments, the small helicopter is already making its presence felt around the world as future leaders monitor its progress towards an unprecedented first flight," said Thomas Zurbuchen, assistant administrator for science at NASA headquarters. "We're making technology demos like this to push the envelope of our experience and provide something on which the next missions and the next generation can build. Just as Ingenuity was inspired by the Wright brothers, future explorers will take off using both the data and inspiration from this mission."


The Mars helicopter is a demonstration of high-risk technologies. If ingenuity had run into difficulties during its 30-day (Martian) mission, it would not have affected the science collection of NASA's Perseverance rover mission.



Flying on Mars in a controlled manner is much more difficult than flying on Earth. Despite the fact that the gravity on Mars is about one-third of the earth's, the helicopter must fly with the help of the atmosphere, the pressure of which on the surface is only 1% of the earths. If successful, the engineers will have invaluable data on missions on Mars to compare with simulations, simulations, and tests conducted here on Earth. NASA will also get its first hands-on experience operating the rotor remotely on Mars. These datasets will be invaluable for potential future missions to Mars, which could attract next-generation helicopters to add an aerial dimension to their research.


"From day one of this project, our team has had to overcome a wide range of seemingly insurmountable technical challenges," said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at JPL. "And here we are safely on Mars-on the eve of our first flight attempt. We got this far with a never-say-die attitude, lots of friends from different technical disciplines, and an agency that likes to turn distant ideas into reality."


Anatomy of the first flight


Sunday's flight will be autonomous, with Ingenuity's guidance, navigation, and control systems piloted. This is mainly because radio signals will take 15 minutes, 27 seconds to bridge the 173-million-mile (278-million-kilometer) gap between Mars and Earth. This is also because almost everything about the Red Planet requires.


NASA's Ingenuity helicopter makes a slow spin test of its blades, April 8, 2021, the 48th Martian day, or sol, mission. This image was captured by navigation cameras on NASA's Perseverance rover. Gif: NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA's Ingenuity helicopter makes a slow spin test of its blades, April 8, 2021, the 48th Martian day, or sol, mission. This image was captured by navigation cameras on NASA's Perseverance rover. Gif: NASA/JPL-Caltech

"Mars is difficult not only when on earth, but when you try to take off from it and fly around, too, "Aung said." It has significantly less gravity, but less than 1% of the pressure of our atmosphere on its surface. Put these things together and you have a vehicle that requires every entrance to be right."

The events leading up to the first flight test begin when the Perseverance rover, which serves as a communications base for ingenuity, receives that day's instructions from Earth. These teams will travel from mission controllers at JPL via NASA's Deep Space Network to the receiving antenna aboard Perseverance. Parked on the Van Zyl Overlook, about 215 feet (65 meters) from, the rover will transmit commands to the helicopter about an hour later.


Then, at 22:53 .m EDT, Ingenuity will start going through a lot of pre-flight checks. The helicopter will repeat the blade-wobble tests it has performed three sols before. If the algorithms working with the guidance, navigation, and control systems find the test results acceptable, they will include an inertial measurement unit (an electronic device that measures the orientation and rotation of the vehicle) and an inclinometer (which measures the slopes). If everything is checked, the helicopter will again adjust the height of its rotor blades, adjusting them so that they do not produce a lift at the beginning of the spin-up part.


The spin-up of the rotor blades will take about 12 seconds to go from 0 to 2537 rpm, the optimal speed for the first flight. After a final check of the systems, the pitch of the rotor blades will be chained to change once again - this time so that they can dig into the few molecules of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and argon available in the atmosphere near the surface of Mars. In a few moments, the first experimental flight tests on another planet will begin.


"It should take us about six seconds to climb to our maximum altitude for this first flight," said JPL's H'vard Grip, flight control lead for ingenuity. "When we hit 10 feet, the ingenuity will go into steam, which should last-if all goes well-for 30 seconds."



While hovering, the helicopter's navigation camera and laser altimeter will feed information to the navigation computer to ensure ingenuity remains not the only level but in the middle of its 33-by-33-foot (10-by-10-meter) airfield-a patch of Martian real estate chosen for its flatness and lack of obstacles. The Mars helicopter will then descend and land back on the surface of Jezero Crater, sending data back to Earth, via Persistence, to confirm the flight.


Perseverance is expected to get images of the flight using its Navcam and Mastcam-I images, with photos expected to go down that evening (early Monday morning, April 12, in Southern California). The helicopter also documents the flight from its point of view, with a color image and several lower-resolution black-and-white navigation photos possibly available the next morning.


"The Wright brothers are only a handful of witnesses to their first flight, but the historic moment was thankfully captured in a great photograph," said Michael Watkins, director of JPL. "Now 117 years later, we can provide a wonderful opportunity to share the results of the first attempt at powered, controlled flight to another world through our robot photographers on Mars."


NASA TV will broadcast a live feed of the team as they receive the data, with commentary starting at 3: 30 a.m. EDT.

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