Cosmic Space

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.


NASA tests next-gen air traffic software

Tablet in cockpit
A tablet computer displays air traffic data during simulations. (NASA Photo / David C. Bowman)

Landing planes at busy airports can be a challenging work of aerial ballet, and this week, NASA is testing a computerized choreographer to handle the job in the skies over Washington state.

The tests, supervised by NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, are part of a series of flights known as Air Traffic Management Technology Demonstration, or ATD-1.

Three research airplanes have been outfitted with NASA-developed software that keeps track of the speed and position of the airplanes as they approach an airport.

The flight deck interval management software automatically calculates how fast the planes should be traveling to maintain the proper spacing between them, and displays that information on a tablet in the planes’ cockpits.

The software can predict the moment when an airplane touches down within a few seconds. That information should help pilots and ground controllers plot the planes’ routes more easily and efficiently. The payoff comes in the form of fuel savings, noise and pollution reduction and fewer flight delays.

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Will NASA’s X-plane campaign pick up speed?

Artwork shows NASA’s concept for Quiet Supersonic Technology, known as QueSST. (Credit: NASA)
Artwork shows NASA’s concept for Quiet Supersonic Technology, known as QueSST. (Credit: NASA)

NASA is laying out a vision of quieter supersonic jets and environmentally friendly X-planes as part of its agenda for aeronautics, the oft-neglected “A” in its acronym.

X-planes – that is, experimental aircraft like the X-1 and the X-15 – played a big role in the history of NASA’s predecessor agency, known as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics or NACA. But when NACA was replaced by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the focus gradually shifted from the air to the space frontier beyond.

The federal budget proposal unveiled in February shifted some of the emphasis back to aeronautics, in the form of a 10-year program called “New Aviation Horizons.” As Congress debates the budget, NASA is touting its plan to bring back the X-planes.

About $20 million already has been set aside for one project, known as Quiet Supersonic Technology or QueSST. A team led by Lockheed Martin is working on the design for a supersonic jet that produces a soft series of thumps rather than an annoying sonic boom.

Other projects could result in airliners that burn half the fuel and generate 75 percent less pollution during each flight, compared with today’s standards.

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