NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter Aces Its First Flight on Mars

·5 min read
  • Early Monday morning, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter became the first rotorcraft to soar through the skies on another planet.

  • The helicopter’s operators received telemetry data from the flight just before 7 a.m. EDT this morning and are now conducting an analysis of the data.

  • This week Ingenuity's operators worked through a command sequence issue that delayed the historic test flight.

Update 04/19/21 7:30 a.m. EDT: NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has safely touched back down on the Martian surface after successfully conducting its very first flight. The rotorcraft is the first to take to the skies of another world.

Early Monday morning, a room full of the helicopter’s operators waited as the first telemetry data and images from the test flight arrived from the Red Planet. Just before 7 a.m. EDT, those data arrived.

“History does tell us that soon after that first flight, Wilbur and Orville [Wright] did go right back to work,” Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, joked to her jubilant team just moments after receiving the data.

Original Article:

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter could finally take to the Martian skies on Monday. If the test flight is successful, it will become the first ever rotorcraft to take flight on another world.

“The moment our team has been waiting for is almost here,” Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said during an April 9 pre-flight press conference. It’s a mission nearly a decade in the making, and one that could dramatically expand our ability to explore the solar system.

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The test flight is currently scheduled to take place no earlier than this Monday, April 19. Because the helicopter’s handlers back on Earth won’t receive data from the mission until the wee hours of the morning, NASA will begin its live stream of the events at 6:15 a.m. on Monday. Follow along here:

NASA’s Perseverance rover, which dutifully stowed the helicopter in its underbelly during the seven-month journey to Mars, stuck a nearly flawless landing on the Red Planet on February 18. On April 6, the rover rolled to a stop and carefully lowered the 4-pound helicopter to the Martian surface. On April 9, it spun its rotors for the first time. Tomorrow could be the day it finally takes off.

“Since we’ve dropped, we’ve been working our way through these commissioning activities to check out the helicopter, to do some calisthenics, to make sure all the motors and blades and computers are working,” Tim Canham, Ingenuity’s operations lead, said during the press conference. “Finally, we’re reaching that culmination of all of that testing, and the helicopter is good. It’s looking healthy.”

Ingenuity’s inaugural flight will be a short one. No earlier than approximately 3:30 a.m. EDT on Monday, the helicopter will lift off, hover roughly 15 feet off the ground, spin around to face the rover and then gently land. All together, it shouldn’t last more than about 40 seconds.

Because it takes several minutes for data to travel from Mars to Earth, NASA engineers won’t know the status of the fully autonomous flight until after the helicopter has landed. NASA officials said last Friday that they expect to receive and process all the necessary data within a few hours of the flight and then release a few images from the helicopter’s joyride by Monday morning.

“We want to make the very first flight a safe one,” Canham said. If all goes according to plan, the agency says, additional flights within the roughly 30-day window will push the small helicopter’s limits, taking it hundreds of feet from its point of liftoff.

The flight was initially scheduled to take place at the same time last weekend, but was delayed because of a command sequence issue. The team spent the week testing two methods of solving the problem and, on April 16, conducted a rapid spin test of the helicopter's rotors, clearing the way for tomorrow's flight.

Flying a helicopter on Mars isn’t easy. Because the Martian atmosphere has roughly 1 percent the density of Earth’s, engineers developed a flying machine specially adapted for flight on the Red Planet. The rotorcraft’s ultralight carbon fiber blades, for instance, have to spin incredibly fast to generate enough lift to get it off the ground.

Ingenuity's flight is one of many exciting projects currently unfolding. In addition to the main objective of the mission—collecting Martian soil samples for return to Earth later this decade—there are several thrilling projects taking place on the rover. One such project, NASA’s MOXIE instrument, will gulp up carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and attempt to convert it to oxygen—a critical resource should humans ever make it to Mars’ surface.

Just as the Wright Brothers’ flight opened the skies to humanity here on Earth, Ingenuity’s mission has sparked a new wave of exciting projects, poised to take the exploration of faraway worlds to new heights. In 2027, NASA plans to launch its highly anticipated Dragonfly mission, in which a rotorcraft will soar through the skies of Saturn's moon Titan. Other missions to explore distant atmospheres—like, say, a mission to survey the clouds of Venus—could soon be on the horizon.

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