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Mars helicopter blazes trail for future flights

For the first time ever, a robotic flier made a controlled takeoff and landing on the surface of another planet – and NASA says space exploration will never be the same.

“This really is a Wright Brothers moment,” NASA’s acting administrator, Steve Jurczyk, said hours after today’s first Red Planet flight by the Ingenuity helicopter.

The 4-pound, solar-powered helicopter arrived on Mars in February as a piggyback payload on NASA’s Perseverance rover. After weeks of preparation, which included a software fix downloaded from a distance of 178 million miles, Ingenuity spun up its twin rotors and lifted off for a 39.1-second, 10-foot-high hop.

It was the first of five planned flights that serve as a technology demonstration for future aerial missions that could flit through Mars’ ultra-thin carbon dioxide atmosphere.

Project manager MiMi Aung of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said the feat was equivalent to sending an earthly rotorcraft flying at an altitude three times the height of the Himalayas.

“Unforgettable day,” she said.

The liftoff occurred at 12:34 a.m. PT, but because of the complicated logistics involved in relaying the data back to Earth, the results weren’t received at JPL until 3:46 a.m. When the first flight’s success was confirmed,  the mission team responded with applause and laughter.

Engineers at JPL, other NASA centers and aerospace industry partners transformed the concept from a seemingly crazy idea to a reality over the course of seven years with $85 million in funding.

Still images taken by a camera on the helicopter showed its own shadow projected on the rock-strewn surface of Mars, and video views captured by Perseverance’s cameras from a distance of 200 feet showed the tiny craft rising up, then plopping back on the ground.

Justin Maki, imaging scientist for the Perseverance mission and deputy principal investigator for Perseverance’s Mastcam-Z camera system, said the experience reminded him of 1997’s Mars Pathfinder mission, which featured an unprecedented trek by the Sojourner rover.

“Once something like this happens on Mars, the skeptics get converted, and it soon becomes a new way of doing things,” Maki told reporters at a news briefing. “This team has the same vibe that we had 24 years ago with Sojourner.”

The flight was accompanied by the trappings of aeronautics, including a name for the airfield (Wright Brothers Field) and designations from the International Civil Aviation Organization for the location (JZRO, for Jezero Crater) and the vehicle (IGY-1, call sign INGENUITY). A snippet of fabric from the 1903 Wright Flyer was attached to the craft. And chief pilot Håvard Grip said he’s even keeping a logbook.

Ingenuity’s second takeoff could take place as soon as April 22, with a flight plan that would have it rising to a height of 5 meters (16 feet) and making a back-and-forth lateral move of 2 meters (6 feet).

Grip said the third flight would extend the lateral distance to 50 meters (164 feet) and increase the helicopter’s forward velocity to 2 meters per second (4.5 mph). The fourth and fifth flights would push the envelope even farther – perhaps to a height of 10 meters (33 feet, the maximum range of Ingenuity’s altimeter) and a lateral traverse of 600 to 700 meters (roughly four-tenths of a mile).

Perseverance’s scientists may even try to use the microphones that are attached to the rover to capture the sound of the helicopter’s buzz.

Aung said she expected all of the remaining flights to take place within the next two weeks, which is how much time is left in the 30-day window allotted for Ingenuity in Perseverance’s mission schedule.

She implied that the final flight might well end up breaking the helicopter. “We will be pushing the limit,” Aung said.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for space science, said aerial probes will be an “entirely new tool” in NASA’s toolbox for Mars exploration, much as rovers were a new tool in 1997.

Ingenuity’s chief engineer, Bob Balaram, said NASA is already talking about a next-generation Mars helicopter that would weigh 25 to 30 kilograms (55 to 66 pounds) and carry 4 kilograms (10 pounds) of scientific instruments. Such helicopters could go where rovers fear to tread – for example, to survey sharply sloped crater walls.

Mars isn’t the only off-Earth destination for robotic flying machines: In 2027, NASA aims to send a plutonium-powered rotorcraft named Dragonfly to Titan, a Saturnian moon with an atmosphere four times denser than Earth’s.

Dragonfly will be more like a dragon than a fly: While Ingenuity weighs just 4 pounds, Dragonfly will weigh roughly half a ton.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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