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Cosmic Space

Mars helicopter gets a new job: robot scout

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has been doing such a great job on Mars that mission managers have decided not to kill it off. Instead, the solar-powered rotorcraft will be given a new assignment: scouting from the air as NASA’s Perseverance rover moves into new territory.

“It’s like Ingenuity is graduating from the tech demo phase to the new ops demo phase, where we can show how a rotorcraft can be used, and show products that only an aerial platform from an aerial dimension can give,” MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager, said today during a news briefing held to lay out the helicopter’s new mission.

Ingenuity rode to a February landing on Mars beneath Perseverance’s belly, on an $85 million technology demonstration mission that’s a subset of the rover’s $2.7 billion, two-year-long primary mission.

Perseverance’s main tasks are to survey the terrain of Mars’ Jezero Crater, which was thought to have once been the site of an ancient lake, and store up samples for later return to Earth.

NASA planned to try out the solar-powered mini-helicopter on five test flights, merely to prove out the technology for conducting aerial missions in Mars’ ultra-thin carbon dioxide atmosphere. After the first flight, Aung hinted that the final flight just might push the envelope far enough to break the 4-pound flying machine.

But things have gone so well during the flights to date — including today’s fourth flight in the series — that the mission team is extending Ingenuity’s mission for an operational demonstration.

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Cosmic Space

Sci-fi ideas take flight in the air of Mars

Drones on Mars? Factories that convert the carbon dioxide in the Red Planet’s atmosphere to breathable oxygen? Such concepts have fueled science-fiction stories for decades, and now they’re becoming reality.

Those two examples turned from fiction to fact just in the last week, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover mission. A mini-helicopter that hitched a ride to Mars beneath Perseverance’s belly has made its first two flights, and an experiment called MOXIE has demonstrated the CO2-to-oxygen trick in actual Martian conditions for the first time.

For viewers of National Geographic’s “Mars” sci-fi docudrama, it’s a case of been there, seen that. During the show’s first season, scaled-up versions of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter conducted reconnaissance missions that ranged above otherwise-inaccessible terrain. Martian air converters — actually called MOXIE — supplied astronauts on Mars with the oxygen they needed to get by.

The fact that both the fictional and the actual converters have the same name is in part due to Bobby Braun, who served as a consultant to the “Mars” show when he was a University of Colorado engineering professor and has since become director of solar system exploration at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Back in 2016, Braun told me the filmmakers’ use of MOXIE — which stands for Mars OXygen In-Situ Resource Experiment — served as an example of “things that are going on today that really inform the way the future mission, the 2033 mission in the series, unfolds.”

Martian helicopters and oxygen converters will have to become a lot more advanced over the next dozen years to match the vision laid out in “Mars” and other science-fiction tales. But if 2033’s historians look back at the technological developments that opened up Mars’ frontiers,  the past week could well loom large on their timeline.

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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.

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GeekWire

Mars Helicopter gets a new name: Ingenuity

Picking up on a suggestion from an Alabama high-school junior, NASA has given an ingenious name to the first helicopter due to take flight on Mars.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Boeing reveals its design for new attack helicopter

Boeing has taken the wraps off its closely held design for the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft, a new type of helicopter that’s being proposed as a replacement for the U.S. Army’s now-retired Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Voom’s Seattle office redefines working remotely

Voom helicopter service
Voom, a subsidiary of Airbus, offers helicopter booking services in Brazil and Mexico. (Airbus Photo)

Add the Airbus subsidiary Voom to the list of tech startups with engineering centers in the Seattle area — and to the list of pioneers in co-located and distributed workplaces.

Both of those talking points are highlighted in a blog posting on working remotely, written last month by Robert Head, a senior software engineer at Voom. The posting was brought to light today by the Puget Sound Business Journal.

The California-based startup has been offering its app-based, on-demand helicopter taxi service in Mexico City and São Paulo, and last month it stealthily expanded its trials to the San Francisco Bay Area in league with Coastal Helicopters.

In his blog posting, Head, who works remotely from Ashland, Ore., talked about software development rather than flight plans. “When Voom decided to grow our own internal team of developers, we chose to locate the office not in San Francisco or Silicon Valley, but rather in Seattle, which has a similarly booming technology scene and an ecosystem of great talent,” he wrote.

Today LinkedIn lists 16 Voom employees as working in the Seattle area, and the company’s careers webpage has seven openings for Seattle workers, including a spot for a vice president of engineering. But the point of Head’s posting wasn’t how Voom conducts its operations in Seattle. Instead, he focused on how the Seattle office serves as a springboard for a far more widely dispersed team.

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GeekWire

NASA adds a drone to its 2020 Mars rover

Mars Helicopter
An artist’s conception shows the Mars Helicopter. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Illustration)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has given the thumbs-up to putting a helicopter on Mars.

The Mars Helicopter, which is actually more of an autonomous drone, will be packed into the belly pan of a Red Planet rover that’s due for launch in 2020.

For months, mission planners and scientists have been debating whether it’d be worth flying the 4-pound rotorcraft for a 30-day test campaign.

Adding the drone to the rover potentially takes away from the space and time that can be devoted to other scientific experiments. But in today’s announcement, Bridenstine said the helicopter would build on NASA’s “proud history of firsts.”

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GeekWire

Airbus and Uber plan on-demand copter rides

Image: Airbus H130 helicopter
Airbus says its H130 copters will be on duty for the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. (Credit: Airbus)

Independent films aren’t the only things that’ll be previewed at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah this week: Airbus Group and Uber Technologies are launching a pilot project that offers on-demand helicopter rides to the show.

But if the project gets picked up for further development, it may require some tweaks to Uber’s standard rideshare model.

Airbus Group’s CEO, Tom Enders, provided a teaser over the weekend at the Digital Life Design conference in Munich, Germany. “It’s a pilot project, we’ll see how it goes — but it’s pretty exciting,” he told The Wall Street Journal.

The Journal quoted an Airbus spokesman as saying that the flights will be provided by Airbus’ H125 and H130 helicopters, in partnership with a Utah-based helicopter operator named Air Resources. Uber would dispatch cars to pick up clients for the rides at Sundance.

Uber has been testing an on-demand helicopter service called UberChopper for about three years, primarily for vacationers or for special events where traffic gets tangled.

Get the full story on GeekWire.