Perseverance moves to deploy Ingenuity 0:57
When the Ingenuity helicopter takes flight on Mars this month it will be like reliving a moment of the Wright brothers… but on another planet.
This first motorized and controlled flight on another planet has been in the making for years.
It also has its roots in the first effort of its kind on Earth.
Ingenuity helicopter, traveling companion to the Perseverance rover, calls home from Mars
117 years have passed since Orville Wright flew Flyer 1 for 12 seconds on a historic day in December 1903. It was at Kill Devil Hills, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
In the image captured by John Daniels, a member of the US Rescue Service at the scene, Orville's brother, Wilbur, can be seen running alongside the plane.
During the fourth and final attempt that day, Wright achieved a flight of almost 60 seconds.
The Wright brothers successfully tested powered flight on December 17, 1903.
Millions of kilometers away and more than a century later, the six-pound Ingenuity helicopter will use its two pairs of 1.2-meter blades to reach nearly 10 feet through the thin Martian atmosphere.
The tiny helicopter will hover in the air for 30 seconds, take pictures, turn around, and return to the surface.
«The first flight is special.
It is without doubt the most important flight we have planned to do, ”said Håvard Grip, Ingenuity's chief pilot at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
The Perseverance rover, which brought the Ingenuity helicopter to Mars, will observe it from 60 meters away, from a vantage point called the vehicle observation site.
The site is located one meter higher than the flying zone.
This illustration shows the Perseverance rover observing the Ingenuity flight from a safe distance.
"Think of it as a place of observation," explained Farah Alibay, Perseverance Integration Lead for Ingenuity at JPL.
“If you ever go to a national park and you have a beautiful view, you want to park there and look.
Our rover is going to do that and our beautiful sight is going to be Ingenuity on Mars.
And we're going to do everything we can to catch Ingenuity as it flies. "
During Ingenuity's maiden flight, the Perseverance rover will attempt to take pictures and video.
The helicopter sounds like a small plane taking off, and the rover's microphones will try to pick up that sound.
The Ingenuity helicopter is currently suspended under the Perseverance rover.
The images and data from the helicopter and the rover will be sent to Earth hours and days later.
So Perseverance will be the only witness to this historic flight at the exact moment it occurs.
People from all over the world tuned in to watch Perseverance successfully land on Mars on February 18.
Also to observe the first image that the rover shared after landing.
But these historic moments do not always occur on a global stage.
Only five people witnessed the Wright brothers' first flight.
Ingenuity's first flight will only last about 30 seconds.
Ingenuity will make its first flight - and up to four more over the course of 31 Earth days - on its own, using a series of instructions sent by the JPL pilots.
An on-board computer will use the images taken by the helicopter to observe the characteristics of the terrain.
Thus, it will make small adjustments 500 times per second to keep the helicopter on track in the event of interference such as gusts of wind.
If the first flight is successful, Ingenuity will try to fly higher and longer to test the limits of what it can do.
The Perseverance rover will spend the next two years exploring Jezero Crater, the site of a former lake and river delta.
Their goal is to search for evidence of previous microbial life and collect samples that will be returned to Earth for future missions.
This will be the first flight of a helicopter on Mars 1:28
But April is the time that Ingenuity can shine.
When those 31 days are over, Ingenuity's brief moment in the spotlight will end.
Such is the life of a tech demo designed to last for a short time.
The Wright brothers made four successful flights on December 17, 1903, before a gust of wind brought down and destroyed the Flyer 1.
As part of the journey on the Pathfinder mission on Mars, the Sojourner rover arrived on July 4, 1997.
The ephemeral nature of Ingenuity is not a problem for its creators.
Past technology demonstrations and experiments are why rovers like Perseverance can explore Mars today.
NASA's Pathfinder mission landed on Mars in 1997. At that moment, a microwave-sized rover called Sojourner dropped onto the surface.
The tech demo was expected to last seven days, but it lasted 83 days. It took photos, explored the terrain of Mars, and captured chemical and atmospheric measurements.
Also, more importantly: Sojourner demonstrated the success of the first wheeled rover vehicle on another planet.
Perseverance will search for ancient life on Mars.
These are the next places
'Sojourner ushered in a new era of exploration on Mars to redefine what we thought was possible on the planet's surface.
And it completely transformed our approach to how to explore there, ”said Lori Glaze, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division.
“That little rover made all the missions that followed possible.
Now Perseverance, the size of a small car, is capable of bringing other technology demonstrations such as Ingenuity, which will further broaden our horizons.
Sojourner demonstrated the value of surface mobility.
So the rovers Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, and Perseverance went on their way.
None of which had been planned prior to Sojourner's successful trip, said Bobby Braun, director of Planetary Science at JPL.
If Ingenuity succeeds, it could lead to a similar evolution.
This graph shows the plan for Ingenuity's flights on Mars.
"I can only imagine where we can be in a decade or more," said Braun.
"If we can scientifically explore and study Mars from the air, with its thin atmosphere, we can certainly do the same at other destinations in the solar system, such as Titan or Venus."
The future of powered flight in space exploration is firm and strong, "he added.
The story behind the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars
The desire for Ingenuity began in the 1990s, when Bob Balaram, a robotics technologist at JPL, overheard Ilan Kroo, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University, speak at a conference about a "mesicopter."
That is, a miniature air vehicle for Earth.
But, Balaram imagined it on Mars.
He proposed it to NASA during a call, but was not selected for funding.
The Mars helicopter would be shelved for 15 years, while Balaram worked on other missions to Mars.
NASA detects seismic activity on Mars 0:50
The time for Ingenuity came in 2013. Charles Elachi, director of JPL, attended a presentation on drones and helicopters that year.
So, he returned to the lab asking if one of those vehicles could fly on Mars.
Balaram recovered his original proposal and developed the first conceptual design for the possibility of including it as a scientific instrument in the 2020 Mars rover, which would be the Perseverance.
Ingenuity was discarded as an instrument for the rover.
However, it received funding and was selected as a technological demonstration that would fly the rover to Mars.
Waiting for all that saved time was actually a good thing.
"We wouldn't have been able to design something like this in the 1990s, when we didn't have the equipment and the battery technology," explained Balaram, the helicopter's chief engineer.
"So actually, the timing was also right, in the sense that we needed some advancements in technology," he added.
Then it was time to build a new type of vehicle that was both an aircraft and a spaceship.
Also, that he didn't endanger Perseverance in any way.
Precisely because the rover would be NASA's first truly astrobiological mission to search for signs of ancient life on another planet.
This image shows the Ingenuity flight model in a lounge at JPL, during February 2019.
During the design phase, the team piloted a small, hand-controlled helicopter in a Mars-like atmosphere.
Although the vehicle was raised, it was not stable.
On the contrary, he jumped and crashed.
"What we learned from that is that human reaction time is not sensitive enough for this helicopter, because of how different the atmosphere is," said Taryn Bailey, mechanical engineer for the helicopter team at JPL.
"So after learning that, the team looked at the development of an autonomous helicopter."
New image of Mars from the Perseverance rover landing site shows the red planet in high definition
It had to be light to rise through the thin atmosphere of Mars, which is 1% of Earth's atmosphere.
But the helicopter also had to include a solar panel, a battery system, a computer, a radio, sensors and cameras in a flight-friendly design that could survive launch and landing.
Testing the helicopter was another challenge because the test chamber had to simulate Mars on Earth.
Flight test was key before Ingenuity could go to Mars.
“There is no manual that says how to test a helicopter that will go to Mars.
Just like the Wright brothers they didn't have a guide on how to test gliders and powered flight vehicles, ”Balaram said.
They had to invent it.
So, in the same way, we had to invent a lot of very unique testing capabilities, ”he added.
Functional tests of the helicopter were conducted in the hyperbaric chamber inside the Kennedy Space Center on March 10, 2020.
To do this, the team built its own wind tunnel using 900 computer fans in a vacuum chamber, so that they could generate the winds that Ingenuity could face on Mars.
The 7.6 meter thermal vacuum chamber controlled temperature and pressure.
This allowed the team to test the helicopter flying in an atmosphere similar to that of Mars, as well as a system that compensated for the difference in gravity between Earth and Mars.
It took seven long years of design, construction and testing, with a technical crisis or challenge emerging every week, Balaram said.
Thanks to rigorous design and testing work at Ingenuity, the current helicopter on Mars went into production in 2018, Bailey said.
The helicopter crew outside NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on December 3, 2018.
The team brought together people from specific disciplines, but they all thought out of the box to help each other work on the helicopter components.
Bailey has been at JPL for five years and was invited to join the Mars Helicopter team when she was 24 years old.
"It means a lot to be part of this team and to witness this historic moment," he said.
Helicopter and rover crews eagerly await the first flight, which could open the way for helicopters and other rotorcraft that will one day act as scouts for rovers and astronauts on Mars.
"It has been a fantastic journey of discovery, exploration and working with fantastic people," said Balaram.
"And it's not over yet," he added.