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Historic First Flight on Another World

NASA’s Ingenuity is about to make a Historic First Flight on Another World.

Ingenuity reached Mars like a stowaway, folded up on the underside of NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed on the red planet in February after a seven-month, 293-million-mile voyage from Earth. For its maiden flight, the 4-pound, $85 million craft will simply rise about 10 feet above the surface and hover—no higher than the rim of a regulation basketball hoop—before returning to the surface. The whole flight should be over within 90 seconds.

NASA officials have likened Ingenuity to the Wright brothers’ Flyer, which in 1903 made the first controlled, powered flight on Earth—a 12-second, 120-foot trip that opened the way to airmail, passenger jets and frequent-flier miles. In homage to that flight, Ingenuity carries a swatch of fabric from the Flyer on the underside of its solar panels.

Immense Challenges

  • Mars’s air density is less than 1% as dense as air on Earth with the density at the surface roughly equivalent to the density at an altitude of about 22 miles (35 km) above Earth.
  • The helicopter is only 19 inches tall but has 4 foot long blades.
  • The 4-foot-long rotors are powered by six motors, each of which took a technician 100 hours working under a microscope to assemble.
  • To achieve flight, the helicopter blades need to be much longer and spin 5 times faster than a helicopter on earth.
  • The vehicle must be extremely light and be able to withstand nighttime temperatures that reach -130 degrees. It needs internal heaters or electrical components can crack.
  • The pint-size power plants generate so much heat that Ingenuity can fly only 90 seconds before they risk a meltdown
  • It has to fly steadily in the unpredictable gusts of Martian wind.
  • No human control. The Ingenuity is on its own due to the huge length of time it takes to get a signal from mars to the earth and back.
  • It's powered by the same Qualcomm processor that goes into consumer smartphones.

Flight Preparation

NASA reports Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Prepares for First Flight

Before Ingenuity takes its first flight on Mars, it must be squarely in the middle of its airfield – a 33-by-33-foot (10-by-10-meter) patch of Martian real estate chosen for its flatness and lack of obstructions. Once the helicopter and rover teams confirm that Perseverance is situated exactly where they want it to be inside the airfield, the elaborate process to deploy the helicopter on the surface of Mars begins.

“As with everything with the helicopter, this type of deployment has never been done before,” said Farah Alibay, Mars Helicopter integration lead for the Perseverance rover. “Once we start the deployment there is no turning back. All activities are closely coordinated, irreversible, and dependent on each other. If there is even a hint that something isn’t going as expected, we may decide to hold off for a sol or more until we have a better idea what is going on.”

The helicopter deployment process will take about six sols (six days, four hours on Earth). On the first sol, the team on Earth will activate a bolt-breaking device, releasing a locking mechanism that helped hold the helicopter firmly against the rover’s belly during launch and Mars landing. The following sol, they will fire a cable-cutting pyrotechnic device, enabling the mechanized arm that holds Ingenuity to begin rotating the helicopter out of its horizontal position. This is also when the rotorcraft will extend two of its four landing legs.

During the third sol of the deployment sequence, a small electric motor will finish rotating Ingenuity until it latches, bringing the helicopter completely vertical. During the fourth sol, the final two landing legs will snap into position. On each of those four sols, the Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering (WATSON) imager will take confirmation shots of Ingenuity as it incrementally unfolds into its flight configuration. In its final position, the helicopter will hang suspended at about 5 inches (13 centimeters) over the Martian surface. At that point, only a single bolt and a couple dozen tiny electrical contacts will connect the helicopter to Perseverance. On the fifth sol of deployment, the team will use the final opportunity to utilize Perseverance as a power source and charge Ingenuity’s six battery cells.

Once the team is ready to attempt the first flight, Perseverance will receive and relay to Ingenuity the final flight instructions from JPL mission controllers. Several factors will determine the precise time for the flight, including modeling of local wind patterns plus measurements taken by the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) aboard Perseverance. Ingenuity will run its rotors to 2,537 rpm and, if all final self-checks look good, lift off. After climbing at a rate of about 3 feet per second (1 meter per second), the helicopter will hover at 10 feet (3 meters) above the surface for up to 30 seconds. Then, the Mars Helicopter will descend and touch back down on the Martian surface.


Mars Ingenuity Trailer

A Piece of History

While Ingenuity will attempt the first powered, controlled flight on another planet, the first powered, controlled flight on Earth took place Dec. 17, 1903, on the windswept dunes of Kill Devil Hill, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Orville and Wilbur Wright covered 120 feet in 12 seconds during the first flight. The Wright brothers made four flights that day, each longer than the previous. 

A small amount of the material that covered one of the wings of the Wright brothers’ aircraft, known as the Flyer, during the first flight is now aboard Ingenuity. An insulative tape was used to wrap the small swatch of fabric around a cable located underneath the helicopter’s solar panel. The Wrights used the same type of material – an unbleached muslin called “Pride of the West” – to cover their glider and aircraft wings beginning in 1901. The Apollo 11 crew flew a different piece of the material, along with a small splinter of wood from the Wright Flyer, to the Moon and back during their iconic mission in July 1969.

Best wishes to NASA and the Ingenuity mission. By the way, please note that is always the US, not the EU or China that leads in such progress.