NASA’s $ 80 million Ingenuity helicopter spun its carbon-composite rotors and took off early Monday from the dusty surface of Mars to be the first aircraft to fly on another planet. This was a “Wright Brothers Moment” that could pave the way for future interplanetary aircraft.
Ingenuity’s counter-rotating 4-foot-long rotors, spinning at over 2,500 RPM, were instructed to change pitch and “bite” deeper into the thin atmosphere for a takeoff from the bottom of Jezero Crater at around 3:30 a.m. EDT.
With the Perseverance rover from a safe distance, Ingenuity was programmed to climb 10 feet straight, hover, turn, and then land for a test flight of just about 40 seconds.
And that’s exactly what it did.
JPL engineer Håvard Grip reported that Ingenuity “performed spin-up, take-off, climb, hover, sink, land, touchdown and spin-down. Altimeter data confirms that Ingenuity performed the first powered airplane flight on another planet!” ” The helicopter team burst into cheers and applause.
Initial images, including a short video, showed the small helicopter taking off, while a still image showed its shadow on the surface of Mars.
Data confirming the historic flight reached Earth three hours after the flight after being relayed via NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. On the way there, it took the data almost 16 minutes to cross the 178 million mile long gulf between Mars and Earth.
At this point, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California found that the helicopter was taking off as planned and making its first take-off and landing on another world.
“We are ready for another historic moment”
“History was made on a cool December morning in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (1903),” said Thomas Zurbuchen, director of space science at NASA, previously. “It took 12 seconds to make history, the first controlled flight here on earth, and something that had enormous consequences.
“We are ready for another historical moment, a historical moment that I believe has analogues in 1903 – controlled flight on another planet,” said Zurbuchen.
Ingenuity’s brief maiden flight up and down may sound trivial given the power of cheap drones on Earth.
But mostly fly in oneOnly 1% as thick as the earth on such a distant planet, direct human control is impossible. When the temperature drops to over 100 degrees below zero every night, it is a major technological challenge.
If successful, larger, more sophisticated drones will likely be sent to Mars and elsewhere in the solar system to transport cameras and scientific instruments to locations inaccessible to rovers or possibly astronauts.
Ingenuity was carried to Mars, which was carried to the belly of thethat landed at Jezero Crater on . The rover later dropped the helicopter to the surface and backed away to observe the first of up to five short test flights.
Equipped with two cameras, the helicopter does not carry any scientific instruments. It was added to Perseverance’s mission just to determine the feasibility of powered flight in the thin atmosphere of the red planet.
Eradicate Ingenuity’s flight problem
The first test flight was originally planned for April 11th. Two days earlier, a rotor spin-up test was canceled by the helicopter’s flight software when it did not go into flight mode as planned.
JPL engineers checked the telemetry and came up with two solutions. You had to link a few additional commands to the control software, an approach that should work about 85% of the time.
The other option was to replace the flight software with a modified version that was uploaded and saved on board Perseverance. This would eliminate the problem entirely, but it would take a few more days to implement and introduce at least a minor additional risk.
After a detailed analysis, the helicopter team decided on the first option.
“This solution is the least disruptive for a helicopter that behaved exactly as we expected until the problem (command sequence timing) was identified,” said project manager MiMi Aung in a blog post. “It’s the easiest because we don’t have to change its configuration.
“We also know that we can try these commands again if the first attempt on Monday does not work. There is a high probability that subsequent attempts in the following days would work even if the first one does not work. For these reasons, we decided. ” to pursue this path. “