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‘It’s thrilling, exciting and terrifying’: NASA prepares for first helicopter flight on Mars

Ingenuity hitched a experience to Mars nestled underneath the stomach of the Perseverance rover, which landed on the Red Planet in February. The helicopter, which is able to solely work for 31 days and can fly for 90 seconds max, is meant to exhibit that flight is feasible on one other planet, which may open the door for uncrewed plane to see components of the planet rovers can’t entry or act as scouts for astronauts on future missions.

Ingenuity might be flying in an environment that’s only one p.c as dense as Earth’s ambiance. That signifies that whereas the helicopter might be simply 10 ft off the bottom, it’s as if it was flying at 100,000 ft on Earth. For comparability, most business planes fly between 30,000 and 40,000 ft.

“It turns out, if you take a small dual-rotor counter rotating helicopter that weighs about four pounds and you make those carbon fiber blades fatter and spin them five-times faster than an Earth helicopter, you can get enough lift” to fly on Mars, Hogg mentioned.

Hogg, who has labored at NASA since 1997, spoke about how his staff is making ready for the historic flight and how the thought for a flying drone on one other planet dates again to the Nineteen Nineties.

This transcript has been edited for size and readability.

What’s your function within the Perseverance mission?

I’ve been working on the Mars 2020 project since 2012. Today I’m the deputy floor mission supervisor for Mars 2020.

We plan what the rover is doing the next Martian sol [a day on Mars.] I’m the deputy operating that staff, so … we’re operating the mission. … It takes a military of individuals to tug that off in a means that it’s protected so we don’t lose our billion greenback asset but additionally in a productive option to get all of the science executed.

How is the staff prepping for Ingenuity’s first flight?

On Saturday, we efficiently accomplished an entire collection of steps to deploy Ingenuity to the Martian floor. We spent 10 days on Mars doing that, which can seem to be a very long time, however a number of necessary issues have to occur.

After it’s been packaged up and safely hooked up to the underside of the rover, it’s 150 million miles away. It made all of it the way in which to Mars, survived launch, entry, descent and touchdown. We don’t wish to fumble on the 99-yard line.

Over the final week or so … we completed assessing the flight zone with the rover’s cameras, we dropped off the particles defend exterior the flight zone, then we drove to 1 finish of the flight zone to start deployment of Ingenuity to the floor. We went by means of a number of steps to try this. We lowered it on an arm with a little bit motor, powered it to vertical position, and completed deploying the legs. … Then we spent an additional day or two ensuring there was sufficient clearance for the rover to drive away. … We wanted to get the rover off and away so daylight may hit Ingenuity’s photo voltaic cells inside a day. It was vital to make that occur so Ingenuity may cost up its batteries and have sufficient power to outlive the Martian night time.

Is there a digital camera on Ingenuity to get aerial pictures of Mars?

Yes. There are two. One is a black and white decrease decision navigation digital camera that captures imagery at a excessive rate and makes use of computer imaginative and prescient to determine the place the helicopter is. The second coloration digital camera is like what you’d have on your cellphone for getting some coloration photographs as nicely.

Where did this concept come from?

What kicked off this complete factor is the truth that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab landed the first rover on Mars within the Nineteen Nineties. … We landed this microwave-sized rover and it was the first time we roved on one other planet. … There was dialogue in varied corners of JPL about what a few flying machine? … In 2013, they’d a flying machine analysis lab. Our then-director at JPL Charles Elachi had gone to a convention and got here again to JPL questioning if we may do a flying machine. He toured the drone lab at JPL and mentioned let’s put collectively a proposal for Mars 2020. The deadline was solely 2 months away. Bob Balaram [the chief Ingenuity engineer] and his staff burned the midnight oil and received a proposal in.

What makes flight so troublesome on Mars?

It’s flying in such a skinny ambiance. But additionally, in the event you take a step again, we’re doing one thing on one other planet that has a a method gentle time of quarter-hour. That means if I purchased a distant management automobile and received it to the Martian floor alive and nicely, and hit go on the joystick, it will be quarter-hour earlier than it began transferring and one other quarter-hour earlier than I knew it was transferring. … So you want an autonomous functionality.

This is the following stage of accomplishment I’m describing, with the ability to fly one thing in 1 p.c of Earth’s ambiance on the floor of one other planet that’s 150 million miles away. These are thoughts boggling engineering achievements we’re coping with right here. … It seems, in the event you take a small dual-rotor counter rotating helicopter that weighs about 4 kilos and you make these carbon fiber blades fatter and spin them 5 occasions sooner than an Earth helicopter, you may get sufficient carry to carry a really light-weight package deal.

So with the lag, it can fly and land earlier than you even comprehend it?

The flights are roughly 90 seconds on common. We ship directions for the day to the rover. The rover passes on directions for the helicopter to a base station … over a radio connection after Ingenuity wakes up and will get in communication with the rover. … So someday on Mars, … it can perform these directions for its first flight.

The outcomes of that flight get despatched in the course of the flight to the bottom station, then relayed to the rover. Then the rover waits for a Mars orbiter to cross overhead and minutes or hours later, it relays every part that occurred to the deep area community right here on Earth [which takes 15 minutes.] Then we get the story of what occurred on Mars and we unpack all of it. Hopefully we might be celebrating.

All these steps occur with people simply ready on Earth to see the way it all performs out.

I can’t think about how annoying that’s.

I’m remembering Saturday afternoon. … We decided that the helicopter had dropped and it had turned on for the first time, so we knew it was alive. Then we allowed the rover to drive away. We had been ready for an hour and a half to see how the drive went and if we efficiently uncovered helo to beat the 25-hour deadline [after which Ingenuity would not have enough battery charge to survive a night on Mars.] … There are moments the place it looks like every week of your life goes by ready to see if one thing is going on that you simply spent seven years engineering. It’s thrilling, exciting and terrifying. This is why we do what we do.