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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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Cosmic Space

It’s the summer of Mars: Check your Red Planet IQ

It’s been more than two years since the most recent launch to Mars, but traffic to the Red Planet is due to pick up dramatically in the next couple of weeks.

The United Arab Emirates could start things off as soon as Sunday (July 19) with the launch of its first-ever interplanetary probe, the Hope orbiter. Liftoff from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center is set for as early as 5:58 p.m. ET (1:58 a.m. UAE time July 20), with a Japanese H-2A rocket providing the ride.

The UAE is an up-and-comer in the space business, as evidenced by last year’s first space mission by an Emirati astronaut. This Mars mission celebrates the Emirates’ 50th anniversary as a nation, and is being carried out by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in collaboration with a variety of U.S. research institutions.

The car-sized Hope orbiter is designed to provide a weather-satellite style view of the Martian atmosphere over the course of its two-year-long primary mission. Hope’s launch has been delayed a couple of times due to unfavorable weather in Japan, but once liftoff takes place, it should be clear sailing to orbital insertion at Mars next February.

China is next up with its Tianwen-1 orbiter, lander and rover. The spacecraft should be sent on its way from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site atop a Long March 5 rocket sometime next week.

Assuming all goes as advertised, Tianwen-1’s landing platform will touch down on a Martian plain known as Utopia Planitia next February. The rover will roll off the platform, take pictures, analyze rock samples and use a radar instrument to hunt for pockets of subsurface water.

Meanwhile, the orbiter will be snapping high-resolution pictures from above and serving as a communications relay. Tianwen (which means “Questioning the Heavens”) is China’s first Mars mission and could lay the groundwork for a sample return mission in the late 2020s.

NASA is also preparing for a sample return mission. On July 30, it’s due to launch the Mars Perseverance rover from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

Perseverance takes advantage of the same basic chassis design and plutonium-powered batteries used for the Curiosity rover, which is still in operation eight years after landing on Mars. But its instruments are optimized to look for the chemical signs of ancient microbial life.

After the one-ton, SUV-sized rover makes its February touchdown in Jezero Crater, one of its primary tasks will be to collect promising samples of Martian rock and soil for eventual return to Earth. Perseverance is also packing a mini-helicopter called Ingenuity, which could become the first powered aircraft to fly on another planet.

There’s a reason why all these spacecraft are due for takeoff this summer, heading for a landing next February. Because of the orbital relationship between Earth and Mars, the optimal opportunity for a trip to the Red Planet comes every 26 months.

NASA’s Mars InSight lander took advantage of the 2018 opportunity, and now it’s time once again for Mars-bound missions to lift off — or wait for the next turn in 2022.

There’ll be a lot more on the Red Planet menu in the next few weeks, and this Mars IQ test should serve as an appetizer. Are you a space cadet or a Mars commander? If you’ve read this story, you should get at least the first quiz question right…

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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.

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