Just a few minutes ago, telemetry data came back from Mars reporting on the first instance of a powered, controlled flight on another planet. And it is a high-flying success! The Mars helicopter Ingenuity made history to executing its command sequence autonomously, rising a few feet above the surface of Mars and landing back successfully, all in the thin atmosphere and low gravity of Mars.

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Here is one of the first images — one of its own shadow on the rocky and dusty surface of Mars, taken by Ingenuity’s navigation camera –

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And here is a short video from Perseverance, stationed 64.3 meters away at Van Zyl Overlook.

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This short test flight is being compared with the first flight by Wilbur and Orville Wright. The area where the flight took place has been wrightfully named the Wright Brothers Field.

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Some more info

From www.nasa.gov/… –

The solar-powered helicopter first became airborne at 3:34 a.m. EDT (12:34 a.m. PDT) – 12:33 Local Mean Solar Time (Mars time) – a time the Ingenuity team determined would have optimal energy and flight conditions. Altimeter data indicate Ingenuity climbed to its prescribed maximum altitude of 10 feet (3 meters) and maintained a stable hover for 30 seconds. It then descended, touching back down on the surface of Mars after logging a total of 39.1 seconds of flight.

Confirmation of the flight arrived at JPL at 6:46 a.m. EDT.

There will be a news briefing today at 2:00 p.m. EDT.

A second experimental test flight is likely on Thursday, April 22.

Why is this flight such a big deal? Aside, from operating under extreme cold conditions on a planet 50 million km away, Ingenuity has to operate in an atmosphere, whose surface pressure is about 0.65% that on earth. On earth, pressure drops to about 4% at an altitude of 20 km (about 65,616 feet). No drone or rotorcraft on earth has every flown at 20 km altitude, let alone at a pressure of 0.65% atmospheres.

About the Ingenuity Helicopter

NASA’s Mars Helicopter Ingenuity is the first to demonstrate powered flight on another world. It is a technology demonstration and assessment experiment and is not critical to the primary mission. It will provide a scouting service for Perseverance by surveying the area around the rover, flying in the thin atmosphere and low gravity of Mars.

The one-way signal travel time between Mars and Earth is around 16 minutes (on April 19), so real-time remote piloting of the helicopter is out of question. Flight plans will uploaded by controllers at JPL; however, Ingenuity will use autonomous control to manage its flight.

ITEM DESCRIPTION
Rotors Counter-rotating coaxial rotors about 120 cm in diameter,  2,400 rpm
Instruments Hi-res downward-looking camera for navigation, landing, and science surveying of the terrain
Comm. Used to communicate with the Perseverance rover

Radio link using low-power Zigbee communication protocol

250 kbit/s over distances of up to 1,000 m.

Navigation Solar tracker camera and visual inertial navigation system

The inconsistent Mars magnetic field precludes the use of a compass

Power Six Sony Li-ion batteries, solar panels
Computer Qualcomm Snapdragon processor (ARM architecture, used in smart phones, drones, etc), probably not radiation hardened
OS Linux


Perseverance

NASA’s Mars 2020 spacecraft and the Perseverance Rover arrived at Mars on Feb 18. The Perseverance rover successfully landed in Jezero Crater, a large impact crater about 45 km wide just north of the Martian equator. Jezero once contained a lake, which scientists think is one of the most ideal places to find evidence of ancient microbial life, the primary objective of this mission.  The rover will also collect and store rock and regolith samples, which will be returned to Earth in a future mission for further analysis.

Check out diary “The Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover and the Search for Life” for more info about the mission.

Some more info for Technology Geeks

If you remember, this flight was postponed from last week, because of a glitch in one of the pre-flight tests. Over the last week, NASA was testing two solutions to address the “watchdog” timer issue that prevented the helicopter from transitioning to “flight mode” – 1) adjusting the command sequence from Earth to slightly alter the timing of this transition, and 2) modifying and reinstalling the existing flight control software, which has been stable and healthy for close to two years. The first solution required adding a few commands to the flight operations sequence. The first solution was used in today’s successful flight. The 2nd solution remains as a backup.

The Future of Flight

To be clear, this short test flight is the small first step in flying on another world. In the coming weeks, Ingenuity will fly up to five times during its 30-day test campaign. If will fly 3–5 metres above ground for up to 90 second missions, traveling as far as 50 metres downrange and back.

Future missions will probably include flying drones, which greatly expand the capability of exploring and studying Mars. And other planets and moons. NASA already has plans to send a flying drone to Saturn’s moon Titan. Dragonfly will launch in 2026 and arrive in 2034.


Hopefully, one day, humankind will fly around Mars, routinely.

Epilogue

Three cheers to Perseverance and Ingenuity — we need more of them in our lives. Let us be inspired to Dare Mighty Things.

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Further Reading

  1. Mars 2020 Mission website — mars.nasa.gov/…
  2. NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Succeeds in Historic First Flight — mars.nasa.gov/…
  3. The Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover and the Search for Life — www.dailykos.com/…
  4. A Celebration of the first day of Perseverance on Mars — www.dailykos.com/…
  5. Amazing video of Perseverance landing on Mars — www.dailykos.com/…

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