Categories
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.

Categories
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.

Categories
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.

Categories
GeekWire

How a goniometer gizmo will help Mars missions

The 3-foot-wide contraption that was built in First Mode’s Seattle workshop looks like something from a science-fiction movie, complete with spinning cogwheels and a flashing light beam — and it really does have an out-of-this-world purpose: helping scientists interpret readings from Mars.

Even the word that describes the gizmo has a sci-fi sound: “goniometer.”

Today, First Mode‘s engineering team delivered the 3-D goniometer to Western Washington University’s Mars Lab in Bellingham, Wash., where it’ll be used in connection with NASA’s Perseverance rover mission.

First Mode worked with Western to design the goniometer under the terms of a $302,000 contract from NASA, and it’s already picked up a suitably NASA-esque name. It’s known as the Western TANAGER, with an acronym that stands for “Three-Axis N-sample Automated Goniometer for Evaluating Reflectance.”

The name pays tribute to the Western Tanager, a bird that can be spotted in Washington and other Western states. “I tied it in by saying that with bird feathers, their color depends both on the pigment but also on the angle that you look at it,” First Mode systems engineer Kathleen Hoza told GeekWire.

Western’s new goniometer may look like something Buck Rogers would use in the 25th century, but such devices actually go back to the 16th century. Goniometers are designed to make precise measurements of angles, much like the protractors used in elementary school.

The Western TANAGER kicks things up a notch by measuring angles in three dimensions. Why is that important for Mars? Because knowing the precise angles of reflection for the sunlight that hits Martian rocks could help scientists unlock some of the Red Planet’s geological secrets.

Categories
Cosmic Space

Perseverance rover’s zoom camera sees Mars in 3-D

If Martians ever golfed, the zoom camera system on NASA’s Perseverance rover could spot their golf balls from 100 yards away — but that’s not all. It can also see in colorful 3-D.

Three-dimensional perspectives of the Martian landscape can help scientists and engineers figure out the best course for the rover to follow when it’s driving autonomously around Jezero Crater. Perseverance’s navigation cameras can provide 3-D imagery in black-and-white — but for the full-color treatment, the twin zoom cameras of the Mastcam-Z system provide views that can’t be beat.

The Mastcam-Z team includes an honest-to-goodness celebrity: Brian May, who’s the lead guitarist for the rock band Queen as well as a Ph.D. astrophysicist who specializes in stereoscopic imaging. May and another technical collaborator, Claudia Manzoni, are sharing their 3-D pictures on the Mastcam-Z blog.

Categories
GeekWire

NASA names Mars landing site after sci-fi pioneer

Fifteen years after her death, Seattle science-fiction author Octavia E. Butler has joined an exclusive pantheon of space luminaries memorialized on Mars.

Today NASA announced that the Red Planet locale where its Perseverance rover touched down last month is called Octavia E. Butler Landing, in honor of a Black author who emphasized diversity in tales of alternate realities and far-out futures.

“Butler’s protagonists embody determination and inventiveness, making her a perfect fit for the Perseverance rover mission and its theme of overcoming challenges,” Kathryn Stack Morgan, deputy project scientist for Perseverance, said in a news release. “Butler inspired and influenced the planetary science community and many beyond, including those typically under-represented in STEM fields.”

Categories
Cosmic Space

Rover spots ‘alien skull’ and other Mars oddities

As sure as Martian winter brings on carbon dioxide frost, the release of high-resolution Mars imagery brings on a rash of alien sightings.

So it’s no surprise that today’s unveiling of a high-resolution, 360-degree panorama, based on image data from NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars, has inspired serious and not-so-serious efforts to find anomalous shapes amid the reddish sands of Jezero Crater.

More than one sharp-eyed observer spotted a skull-shaped rock not far from the rover’s wheels. Others pointed to a bright-colored spot near the horizon — and wondered whether it might represent the wreckage of the rocket-powered “Sky Crane” descent stage that dropped the rover onto the Martian surface and then flew off to a crash landing.

The most surprising anomaly was spotted not on the panoramic image, but on one of the pictures snapped by a hazard avoidance camera just a couple of minutes after the Feb. 18 landing. A column of dust and smoke could be seen rising up from the horizon. Yes, it was coming from the dearly departed descent stage. But no, it wasn’t anywhere close to the bright-colored formation, which was probably just a rock formation gleaming in the sun.

Categories
GeekWire

NASA releases amazing video and audio from Mars

For the first time ever, NASA has captured video of a rover landing on the surface of Mars, plus audio of the wind whistling past it after the landing — and Amazon Web Services is playing a key role in making all those gigabytes of goodness available to the world.

The stars of the show are NASA’s Perseverance rover and the hundreds of scientists and engineers supporting the mission to Mars at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other institutions around the world. But the fact that thousands of images are being pumped out via NASA’s website with only a few hiccups is arguably a testament to AWS’ performance.

“AWS is proud to support NASA JPL’s Perseverance mission,” Teresa Carlson, Amazon Web Services’ vice president of worldwide public sector and industries, said today in a blog post. “From the outset, AWS cloud services have enabled NASA JPL in its mission to capture and share mission-critical images, and help to answer key questions about the potential for life on Mars.”

More than 23,000 images, amounting to 30 gigabytes of data, were gathered during the final minutes of Perseverance’s journey to Jezero Crater on Mars, said Dave Gruel, camera suite lead for entry, descent and landing at JPL.

A couple of cameras looked up from the spacecraft’s back shell to document the deployment of the parachute. Another camera looked down from the “Sky Crane” descent stage to watch the rover’s touchdown. Meanwhile, cameras on the rover looked up at the Sky Crane and looked down and out to survey its surroundings.

All those perspectives were put together in a three-minute video that documented the milestones of the descent, from the time the parachute popped open to the rover’s dusty touchdown. At the end, video from the rover shows the descent stage flying away to its safe disposal, powered by a set of thrusters built by Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond, Wash.

Categories
Cosmic Space

Rover delivers an iconic selfie from Mars

Can NASA’s Perseverance rover compete with the Hubble Space Telescope or Apollo 11 when it comes to stunning views from space? We already know the answer: The moment just before the six-wheeled robot’s touchdown on Mars has produced a picture for the ages.

“This is an image of the rover Perseverance, slung beneath the descent stage, its propulsion backpack, as it is being lowered to the surface of Mars,” Adam Steltzner, chief engineer for the Perseverance mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said today at a briefing where the Feb. 18 image was revealed.

Steltzner pointed out the three cables that connected the rover to the “Sky Crane” descent stage, not yet cut for the landing. You can also see the curlicue of the rover’s electrical umbilical cord. “The ones and zeroes that represent this image will travel down that umbilical before it is cut and the rover is left safe on the surface of Mars,” he said.

Categories
GeekWire

NASA rover touches down to look for life on Mars

NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on Mars today and began a mission that’s meant to store up evidence of past life on Mars, after a trip that came to a climax with seven minutes of delicious terror.

“Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life,” lead controller Swati Mohan declared at 12:55 p.m. PT.

The end of Perseverance’s seven-month, 300 million-mile journey played out like a radio drama. Due to limited bandwidth and an 11-minute delay in receiving signals, there was no live video of the landing. But thanks to internet links, millions of people could listen in as Mohan called out the milestones over a live stream from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

A socially distanced cadre of controllers at JPL applauded, screamed and exchanged fist bumps after the touchdown. Moments later, the first black-and-white picture from the rover’s hazard avoidance cameras was displayed on a giant screen.