A small robotic helicopter named Ingenuity made history in space exploration on Monday as it took off from the surface of Mars and floated in the blurry air of the red planet. It was the first machine from Earth to fly over another world like an airplane or a helicopter.
The achievement extends the long, extraordinary record of NASA premieres on Mars.
“We flew together on Mars,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager, to her team during the celebration. “And we have this Wright Brothers moment together now.”
Like the first flight of an airplane by Wilbur and Orville Wright in 1903, the flight did not go far or long, but it did show what was possible.
Ingenuity was something else for NASA – a high risk, high reward and modest price project where failure was an acceptable outcome.
This approach is more like that of nimble space companies like SpaceX than large traditional development programs that meet all sorts of contingencies to build a full-size machine that needs to work the first time.
Ingenuity was thus a small experiment with the potential for paradigm-breaking progress. NASA pinned the helicopter to their newest Mars rover, Perseverance. However, building Ingenuity required mastering robotic flight technology and overcoming the physics of a world without air. And its success could open new avenues to explore the red planet.
Perhaps a more advanced helicopter could serve as a scout for a future rover, identifying fascinating locations for more accurate study and safe routes for the rover to go to. Or swarms of helicopters could fly up and down cliffs to examine layers of rock that are too far away or out of sight of the current spacecraft.
On Sunday, mission controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California sent the orders for the test to Perseverance, which landed on Mars in February. Persistence, in turn, relayed orders to Ingenuity, which sat 200 feet away on flat terrain that was chosen as the runway for a series of five test flights.
At 3:30 a.m. East Coast time – it was the middle of Mars day, half an hour past noon, the helicopter turned its rotors as instructed and climbed over the Jezero crater into the Martian sky.
It hovered at a height of about 10 feet. It was back on the surface in less than 60 seconds.
But at that moment, nobody on Earth – including the people at NASA – knew what was actually happening. The two spaceships were not in contact with Earth during the test, and Ingenuity had to perform all of its actions autonomously.
It was only three hours later when one of NASA’s other Mars spacecraft, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, flew overhead and Perseverance was able to route the test data collected from the flight through the orbiter back to Earth.
Minutes later, the engineers analyzed the data and found evidence of the successful flight.
“Altimeter data confirms that Ingenuity has made its first flight,” announced Havard Grip, the engineer serving as NASA’s chief pilot for Ingenuity when the data arrived, “the first powered flight of a powered airplane on another planet.”
Soon after, the engineers showed a picture Ingenuity had taken in flight showing its shadow on the ground, and then a video of Perseverance of the helicopter hovering in the air.
Flying on Mars is on the verge of impossible because there isn’t a lot of air to push against. On the surface of Mars, the atmosphere is only 1/100 as dense as that of Earth. To create enough lift for the four-pound Ingenuity to ascend, its two rotors, each about four feet wide, had to spin in opposite directions at over 2,500 revolutions per minute.
Ms. Aung told her team to celebrate the moment. “And then we’ll get back to work and make more flights,” she said.
With the success of Monday, up to four more flights could be attempted. The first three are used to test the basic skills of the helicopter. The third flight could fly a distance of 160 feet and then return. The last two flights could continue flying, but NASA officials didn’t want to speculate on how much.
NASA plans to complete testing within 30 Mars days of Ingenuity surrendering April 3, so Perseverance can begin the bulk of its $ 2.7 billion mission. It will leave the helicopter behind and head towards a river delta on the edge of the Jezero crater, where sediments and possibly chemical clues to ancient life will be preserved.
Ingenuity was a nice $ 85 million add-on project, but not a prerequisite for Perseverance to be a success.
The lower requirements of a technology demonstration allowed engineers to use a near-off-the-shelf Qualcomm processor, originally designed for cell phones with more processing power than all previous interplanetary spacecraft combined.
The processor, not adapted to the harsh conditions of space, was more prone to radiation interference, but the helicopter needed all that speed to handle the continuous adjustments Ingenuity had to make in the air.
The little machine that traveled to Mars on the bottom of Perseverance also caught the imagination of many.
Just before Perseverance took off for Mars last June, Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator at the time, said, “I’ll tell you, the thing that excites me most as a NASA administrator is preparing to watch a helicopter fly up another world. “
John P. Grotzinger, a professor of geology at the California Institute of Technology and a former project scientist for Curiosity, a former Mars rover that arrived in 2012, said he was also a fan of Ingenuity.
“This is a really viable way to explore the planet because you can cover so much area,” said Dr. Grotzinger.
A helicopter, especially a helicopter that flies in the air of Mars, can only carry a limited number of sensors, and it cannot see things as detailed as a rover, which can move a robotic arm and push instruments directly against a rock.
“But the compromise gives us access to another part of understanding Mars,” said Dr. Grotzinger. NASA wasn’t the only visitor to the red planet from Earth this year.
China’s Tianwen-1 probe also arrived in February and entered a steady orbit of the planet weeks later. As early as the end of May, it will release a lander and rover that will attempt to reach the surface of the red planet. If successful, it will be China’s first successful landing on another planet – it has landed on the moon three times already.
The United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe also arrived on Mars two months ago. After its engines were shot down on March 29, it entered orbit where it can begin to closely examine the planet’s atmosphere and weather. This phase of scientific research should begin last Wednesday.