Mars helicopter flight test promises Wright Brothers moment for NASA

The planet Mars is depicted in this view from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope taken on May 12, 2016. NASA / Document via Reuters

NASA hopes to mark a 21st century Wright Brothers moment on Monday as it attempts to send a miniature helicopter buzzing above the surface of Mars in what would be an aircraft’s first powered, controlled flight to another planet .

Significant achievements in science and technology may appear modest by conventional measures. The Wright Brothers’ first controlled flight in the world of a powered airplane, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903, only traveled 37 meters in 12 seconds.

A modest start is also in store for NASA’s Ingenuity solar-powered twin-rotor helicopter.

If all goes according to plan, the 4 pound (1.8 kg) vortex will slowly ascend straight up to an altitude of 3 meters above the Martian surface, hover in place for 30 seconds, then spin before descending. slowly. landing on all four legs.

While simple metrics may seem less than ambitious, the “airfield” for the interplanetary test flight is 173 million miles from Earth, on the floor of a vast Martian basin called the Jezero Crater. Success depends on Ingenuity executing pre-programmed flight instructions using an autonomous pilot and navigation system.

“The moment our team was waiting for is almost here,” said MiMi Aung, head of Project Ingenuity, in a recent briefing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles.

NASA itself compares the experience to the Wright Brothers’ feat 117 years ago, paying homage to that modest but monumental first flight by affixing a small strip of wing fabric from the original Wright flyer below the panel. Solar Ingenuity.

The robot rotorcraft was transported to the Red Planet attached to the belly of NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover, a mobile astrobiology lab that landed on February 18 in Jezero Crater after a nearly seven-month trip to space.

Although Ingenuity’s flight test is expected to begin around 3:30 a.m. EST Monday (7:30 a.m. GMT Monday), data confirming its result is not expected to reach JPL mission control until 6:15 a.m. , eastern time, Monday.

NASA also expects to receive footage and video from the flight that mission engineers hope to capture using cameras mounted on the helicopter and the Perseverance rover, which will be stationed 76 meters from the flight area of ‘Ingenuity.

If the test is successful, Ingenuity will undertake several additional and longer flights in the coming weeks, although it will have to rest four to five days between each to recharge its batteries. Much of the outlook for future flights rests on a safe four-point landing the first time around.

“It doesn’t have a self-righting system, so if we have a bad landing, that will be the end of the mission,” Aung said. A surprisingly strong gust of wind is a potential risk that could spoil the flight.

NASA is hoping that Ingenuity – a technology demonstration separate from Perseverance’s main mission to search for traces of ancient microorganisms – will pave the way for aerial surveillance of Mars and other destinations in the solar system, such as Venus or the moon of Saturn Titan.

While Mars has much less gravity to overcome than Earth, its atmosphere is only 1% denser, which presents a particular challenge for aerodynamic lift. To compensate, engineers fitted Ingenuity with larger rotor blades (4 feet long) that spin faster than what would be needed on Earth for an aircraft of this size.

The design has been successfully tested in vacuum chambers built at JPL to simulate Martian conditions, but it remains to be seen whether Ingenuity will fly to the Red Planet.

The small light aircraft has already passed a crucial early test by demonstrating that it can withstand appalling cold, with nighttime temperatures dropping as low as 130 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius), using only the solar energy to recharge and keep internal components properly heated. .

The planned flight was delayed for a week by a technical problem during a rotation test of the aircraft’s rotors on April 9. NASA said this issue has since been resolved.

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