•  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  

Ingenuity’s success

NASA’s engineers have confirmed that their helicopter Ingenuity managed a successful debut test flight early Monday morning. In a historic demonstration that may seem like a small feat, for now, Ingenuity rose to a 10 feet altitude above the Martian landscape and hovering just shy of 40 seconds. The achievement marks the first off-world powered flight. The successful test makes way for a new form of planetary travel and exploration. These tiny rotorcrafts could potentially be sent where traditional rovers have not been able to get and the prospects are huge.

At 3:34 AM ET, Earth time (12:34 PM Mars time) the 4lb helicopter began to spin its twin rotor blades at speeds of over 2,500 rpm to make its maiden flight. To put this into perspective, a regular helicopter blade spins at 500 rpm to fly on Earth. The primary scheduled test required the craft to maintain a 30-second hover with a controlled descent, and that is exactly what it did. NASA recorded the trial as a fully autonomous 39.1-second flight test, with descent and touchdown.

The rotorcraft made its 173 million miles journey attached to NASA’s Perseverance rover and reached its destination on February 18th. However, it wasn’t deployed from the rover for a further month. Five essential flight tests were planned in advance for the tiny helicopter to complete each scheduled within a 31-day window that began counting down from the day of deployment which was April 4th. There were hiccups, but Monday’s successful flight will spur on the next 4 phases of investigation. Each will be a little more ambitious than the last.

Cheerful results 

Ingenuity’s flight attempt was essentially flawless and upon hearing confirmation of its success the engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) began to cheer. One of the engineers present in the room at the time of confirmation was MiMi Aung, the manager of the Ingenuity project The message was clear and concise giving everyone cause for celebration as you can see in the following quote from Joey Roulettes article at The Verge; “Confirmed, that Ingenuity has performed its first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet,” Ingenuity chief pilot Håvard Grip declared, prompting applause inside JPL Mission Control. “We can now say that humans beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” 

“This gives us amazing hope for all of humanity. I couldn’t be more proud,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate NASA administrator for science, tweeted. With Ingenuity, Zurbuchen said during a post-flight press conference, NASA’s engineering teams were able to find “that right line between crazy and innovative.”

In homage to another historical flight, the area in which Ingenuity performed its first flight has been named the Wright Brothers Field after the brothers’ 1903 flight. Zurbuchen announced it quite fondly stating “in recognition of the ingenuity and innovation that continue to propel exploration.” In fact, ingenuity was sent to the Martian surface carrying a tiny piece of the Wright brothers plane itself.

Visual confirmation of Ingenuity’s flight came in the form of a black-and-white image from its down-facing navigation camera. It showed little more than the crafts’ own shadow upon the Martian landscape. A sequence of images taken by NASA’s Perseverance rover followed moments later arriving at mission control. These were captured from just over 200 ft away showing the motion of Ingenuity’s flight.

Ingenuity landing
Ingenuity soared 10 feet off the ground over Mars’ Jezero Crater. Video: NASA / JPL

First Mars helicopter flight was rescheduled

The flight was initially scheduled for April 11th, but engineers had to re-upload Ingenuity’s flight software after some preflight issues were encountered. Ingenuity has a running track-shaped flight zone at Mars’ Jezero Crater. This is also the site that Perseverance is examining for signs of ancient microbial life.

Michael Watkins the JPL director likens Ingenuity’s flight to unlocking “the third dimension” of traveling off-planet stating that “It freed us from the surface forever in planetary exploration,” he told reporters in a press conference. Ingenuity nailed a midair pivot and hovered exactly as planned. Therefore we can add powered rotorcraft to our list of interplanetary exploration tools.

Ingenuity never went to Mars for any specific mission. There were no objectives to explore, gather data or assist in experiments. Perseverance is to head everything as it was sent to collect soil samples which will be retrieved by a future rover possibly in 2031. But, rotorcrafts could play a bigger role in the future after Ingenuity has been tested off-world and sets a precedent.

For the time being, Ingenuity’s first flight data needs to be looked at in detail by the team of engineers behind it. The data analysis will help to determine the parameters of the four following scheduled tests. These are currently due to take place from April 22nd if all goes to plan. They will see Ingenuity pushed a little further, soaring to higher altitudes and traversing its dedicated flight zone at higher speeds. Ingenuity relies on an altitude sensing laser employed as a rangefinder to detect where the ground level is below it. How high it will be pushed is limited and engineers will likely stay on the safe side so as not to break their new toy. At a press conference, it was divulged by Grip that we were looking at a maximum test flight altitude of “probably ten meters, or a little bit more, but not much more than that.” “

Like the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, we know that our time to make a difference at Jezero Crater, Mars is not yet over,” just after flight confirmation Aung told engineers in Mission Control, “This is just the first great flight.”

0
0