Tampa Bay Times

Mars helicopter flight historic step for NASA

- BY CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT

They landed a car-size rover on Mars, and the brilliant, if cheeky, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory even sneaked a coded message into the parachute used to slow it down for a soft landing that read, “Dare Mighty Things.”

Now comes what the space agency says will be a “Wright brothers” moment on Mars: the first powered flight of an aircraft on another planet.

It won’t fly far, just to the height of a basketball rim and down, a short hop that should take about 40 seconds. But the autonomous flight of a tiny helicopter called Ingenuity would mark a first in interplane­tary travel, demonstrat­e a new technology and pave the way for scientists and explorers to more quickly traverse the surface of the Red Planet.

Originally expected to happen as early as today, the flight was postponed until no earlier than Wednesday after a problem during a test of spinning the rotor blades at full power. In a statement Saturday, NASA said, “The helicopter is safe and healthy and communicat­ed its full telemetry set to Earth.” But it is diagnosing the problem before running another test.

It’s a technology demonstrat­ion add-on to the main feature of the mission — the Perseveran­ce rover, a vehicle designed to explore the landscape of a crater that once held water and could yield clues about the possibilit­y of ancient life there.

The rover is outfitted with all sorts of cameras and sensors that can zoom in on rock formations and collect data about the planet’s landscape and climate. “Reading the geological history embedded in its rocks will give scientists a richer sense of what the planet was like in its distant past,” NASA said.

Perseveran­ce carried Ingenuity with it, a tiny offspring clinging to the undercarri­age of the rover during the seven-month, 300-million-mile journey, the white knuckled landing through Mars’s atmosphere and the frigid Martian nights since.

Now it’s almost ready for its first flight.

“It could be an amazing day,” Tim Canham, NASA’s Ingenuity operations lead, told reporters Friday. “We’re all nervous, but we have confidence that we put in the work and the time and we have the right people to do the job.”

Given the distance between Mars and Earth, NASA won’t get word of the success or failure of the mission hours later.

Ingenuity is a sprite of a helicopter, just 4 pounds, with four pointy legs, two rotor blades that whirl at blinding speed in opposite directions, a solar panel and a fuselage packed with avionics designed to help it navigate the thin Martian atmosphere — another marvel to emerge from the labs at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

It’s no easy feat, flying a helicopter on Mars. The reduced gravity — about onethird of Earth’s — will help it take off and stay aloft. But the paucity of the Martian atmosphere, just 1 percent of the density of Earth’s, doesn’t give the blades much to chew on as they try to gain purchase for liftoff.

“That’s the equivalent of about 100,000 feet of altitude on Earth, or three times the height of Mount Everest,” said MiMi Aung, NASA’s Ingenuity project manager. “We don’t generally fly things that high.”

The twin blades can spin incredibly fast, 2,400 rotations per minute, and were designed to propel the dronelike Ingenuity off the ground.

If successful, Ingenuity’s flight would come nearly 120 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight of a plane above the beach in North Carolina.

As a tribute to the Wright brothers, Ingenuity has a postage-stamp-size bit of fabric from the brothers’ aircraft attached to a cable under the solar panel.

If all goes according to plan, the helicopter could make as many as five flights, each one more ambitious than the last. The second, for example, would fly slightly higher, to 16 feet, and then horizontal­ly for a little bit before returning to the landing site.

 ?? NASA ?? The Ingenuity helicopter, left, hitched a ride to Mars aboard the Perseveran­ce.
NASA The Ingenuity helicopter, left, hitched a ride to Mars aboard the Perseveran­ce.

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