NASA engineers made history on Monday with the 39.1-second flight of Ingenuity, a small helicopter, in the thin atmosphere of Mars. They contributed to their success on Thursday when the test vehicle flew higher, longer and riskier.
At 5:33 a.m. Eastern time – it was 12:33 p.m. in Jezero Crater on Mars – Ingenuity lifted itself autonomously from the red surface of Mars and threw up a cloud of dust as it ascended. It reached an altitude of 16 feet, leaned 5 degrees to move seven feet sideways, hovered and twisted to point its color camera in multiple directions, and then returned to its starting point to land.
This flight lasted 59.1 seconds.
“It sounds simple, but there are a lot of unknowns about how to fly a helicopter on Mars,” said Håvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot, in a NASA press release. “That’s why we’re here – to make these strangers known.”
The Ingenuity helicopter is a demonstration of a new aerial capability that NASA could take advantage of in the years to come. It’s been added to Perseverance, a rover that cost billions of dollars to ship to Mars to check for signs of extinct microbial life. Although the tiny rotorcraft cost a fraction of the mission it carried – $ 85 million – it contains sophisticated computer hardware and software. For the project, NASA engineers had to develop solutions to important technical problems.
The hardest part was getting a helicopter to fly in 1/100 of the air on the surface of the earth, without which it is difficult to fly. The team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who built Ingenuity, overcame these problems with ultralight materials that could spin at around 2,400 revolutions per minute.
On its first flight on Monday, Ingenuity soared 10 feet before turning 90 degrees and landing almost exactly where it started. But the short jump was the first powered flight on another world and expanded NASA’s list of distinctions on Mars.
It also reaffirmed how the secrets of the solar system can be unlocked using means of transport beyond robotic surface rovers and orbiting satellites. Engineers on Earth might be more inspired to explore the potential of other unconventional spaceships like a robotic airship to study the clouds of Venus or a submarine drone to dive into the oceans of icy moons like Europe.
There are currently no plans to bring a second helicopter to Mars. But Bob Balaram, the project’s chief engineer, said Monday he and his colleagues had started designing a larger Mars helicopter that could carry around 10 pounds of scientific equipment.
The Ingenuity team has little time to complete its testing program. NASA has only allocated 30 Mars days – roughly 31 Earth days – for up to five test flights. Then the rover, its connection to earth, sets off to begin its main task of searching for signs of past life in a dried-up river delta at the edge of the crater.
Engineers lost a week diagnosing a problem that prevented the Ingenuity’s computer from entering “airplane mode”. Adjusting the commands sent from Earth to Mars seems to have solved the problem.
The remaining flights are intended to push Ingenuity even further to its limits. MiMi Aung, the project manager, said Monday she hoped the last one could go up to 2,300 feet from its launch point.
Other endurance-related activities are also in the pipeline. NASA reported the success of an experiment with the rover on Wednesday called MOXIE in the production of oxygen. The device broke carbon dioxide molecules in the Martian air. This advancement will be vital for future astronauts coming from Earth – both to create something for them to breathe and to create propellants for their return to Earth.