NASA’s Mars Helicopter to Make First Flight Attempt Sunday

Apr 9, 2021 RELEASE 21-038

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter unlocked its blades

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter unlocked its blades, allowing them to spin freely, on April 7, 2021, the 47th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. This image was captured by the Mastcam-Z imager aboard NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover on the following sol, April 8, 2021.Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Lee este nota de prensa en español aquí.

Editor’s Note: On April 10, NASA announced that based on data from the Ingenuity Mars helicopter that came in late on April 9, the agency has chosen to reschedule the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter’s first experimental flight to no earlier than Wednesday, April 14. Additional information is available at: https://mars.nasa.gov/technology/helicopter/status/291/mars-helicopter-flight-delayed-to-no-earlier-than-april-14/

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is two days away from making humanity’s first attempt at powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet. If all proceeds as planned, the 4-pound (1.8-kg) rotorcraft is expected to take off from Mars’ Jezero Crater Sunday, April 11, at 12:30 p.m. local Mars solar time (10:54 p.m. EDT, 7:54 p.m. PDT), hovering 10 feet (3 meters) above the surface for up to 30 seconds. Mission control specialists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California expect to receive the first data from the first flight attempt the following morning at around 4:15 a.m. EDT (1:15 a.m. PDT). NASA TV will air live coverage of the team as they receive the data, with commentary beginning at 3:30 a.m. EDT (12:30 a.m. PDT).

“While Ingenuity carries no science instruments, the little helicopter is already making its presence felt across the world, as future leaders follow its progress toward an unprecedented first flight,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters. “We do tech demos like this to push the envelope of our experience and provide something on which the next missions and the next generation can build. Just as Ingenuity was inspired by the Wright brothers, future explorers will take off using both the data and inspiration from this mission.”

The Mars Helicopter is a high-risk, high-reward technology demonstration. If Ingenuity were to encounter difficulties during its 30-sol (Martian day) mission, it would not impact the science gathering of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover mission.

Flying in a controlled manner on Mars is far more difficult than flying on Earth. Even though gravity on Mars is about one-third that of Earth’s, the helicopter must fly with the assistance of an atmosphere whose pressure at the surface is only 1% that of Earth. If successful, engineers will gain invaluable in-flight data at Mars for comparison to the modeling, simulations, and tests performed back here on Earth. NASA also will gain its first hands-on experience operating a rotorcraft remotely at Mars. These data sets will be invaluable for potential future Mars missions that could enlist next-generation helicopters to add an aerial dimension to their explorations.

“From day one of this project our team has had to overcome a wide array of seemingly insurmountable technical challenges,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at JPL. “And here we are – safely on Mars – on the eve of our first flight attempt. We got this far with a never-say-die attitude, a lot of friends from many different technical disciplines, and an agency that likes to turn far-out ideas into reality.”

Anatomy of a First Flight

Sunday’s flight will be autonomous, with Ingenuity’s guidance, navigation, and control systems doing the piloting. That’s mostly because radio signals will take 15 minutes, 27 seconds to bridge the 173-million-mile (278-million-kilometer) gap between Mars and Earth. It’s also because just about everything about the Red Planet is demanding.

“Mars is hard not only when you land, but when you try to take off from it and fly around, too,” said Aung. “It has significantly less gravity, but less than 1% the pressure of our atmosphere at its surface. Put those things together, and you have a vehicle that demands every input be right.”

Events leading up to the first flight test begin when the Perseverance rover, which serves as a communications base station for Ingenuity, receives that day’s instructions from Earth. Those commands will have travelled from mission controllers at JPL through NASA’s Deep Space Network to a receiving antenna aboard Perseverance. Parked at “Van Zyl Overlook,” some 215 feet (65 meters) away, the rover will transmit the commands to the helicopter about an hour later.

Then, at 10:53 p.m. EDT (7:53 p.m. PDT), Ingenuity will begin undergoing its myriad preflight checks. The helicopter will repeat the blade-wiggle test it performed three sols prior. If the algorithms running the guidance, navigation, and control systems deem the test results acceptable, they will turn on the inertial measurement unit (an electronic device that measures a vehicle’s orientation and rotation) and inclinometer (which measures slopes). If everything checks out, the helicopter will again adjust the pitch of its rotor blades, configuring them so they don’t produce lift during the early portion of the spin-up.

The spin-up of the rotor blades will take about 12 seconds to go from 0 to 2,537 rpm, the optimal speed for the first flight. After a final systems check, the pitch of the rotor blades will be commanded to change yet again – this time so they can dig into those few molecules of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and argon available in the atmosphere near the Martian surface. Moments later, the first experimental flight test on another planet will begin.

“It should take us about six seconds to climb to our maximum height for this first flight,” said JPL’s Håvard Grip, the flight control lead for Ingenuity. “When we hit 10 feet, Ingenuity will go into a hover that should last – if all goes well – for about 30 seconds.”

While hovering, the helicopter’s navigation camera and laser altimeter will feed information into the navigation computer to ensure Ingenuity remains not only level, but in the middle of its 33-by-33-foot (10-by-10-meter) airfield – a patch of Martian real estate chosen for its flatness and lack of obstructions. Then, the Mars Helicopter will descend and touch back down on the surface of Jezero Crater, sending data back to Earth, via Perseverance, to confirm the flight.

Perseverance is expected to obtain imagery of the flight using its Navcam and Mastcam-Z imagers, with the pictures expected to come down that evening (early morning Monday, April 12, in Southern California). The helicopter will also document the flight from its perspective, with a color image and several lower-resolution black-and-white navigation pictures possibly being available by the next morning.  

“The Wright brothers only had a handful of eyewitnesses to their first flight, but the historic moment was thankfully captured in a great photograph,” said Michael Watkins, director of JPL. “Now 117 years later, we are able to provide a wonderful opportunity to share the results of the first attempt at powered, controlled flight on another world via our robotic photographers on Mars.”

More About Ingenuity

The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was built by JPL, which also manages this technology demonstration project for NASA Headquarters in Washington. It is supported by NASA’s Science, Aeronautics, and Space Technology mission directorates. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley and NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, provided significant flight performance analysis and technical assistance.

At NASA Headquarters, Dave Lavery is the program executive for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. At JPL, MiMi Aung is the project manager and J. (Bob) Balaram is chief engineer.

JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, built and manages operations of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter.

For more information about Ingenuity:

https://go.nasa.gov/ingenuity-press-kit

and

https://mars.nasa.gov/technology/helicopter

More About Perseverance

A key objective for Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust).

Subsequent NASA missions, in cooperation with ESA (European Space Agency), would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these sealed samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

JPL built and manages operations of the Perseverance rover.

For more about Perseverance:

nasa.gov/perseverance

and

mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/

-end-

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Zig Zag Wanderer
April 10, 2021 10:47 pm

Mars’ atmosphere may be only 1% of Earth’s, but 95% of that is the Magic Molecule, CO2!

That’s about 25 times as much CO2 than Earth. That’s why it’s so warm on Mars…

Vuk
Reply to  Zig Zag Wanderer
April 11, 2021 2:23 am

“A summer day on Mars may get up to 70 degrees F (20 degrees C) near the equator, but at night the temperature can plummet to about minus 100 degrees F (minus 73 C).”

Earth deserts: “Temperature. During the day, desert temperatures rise to an average of 38°C (a little over 100°F). At night, desert temperatures fall to an average of -3.9°C (about 25°F).

Reply to  Vuk
April 11, 2021 5:07 am

You missed the /sarc tag 😀

Richard (the cynical one)
Reply to  Krishna Gans
April 11, 2021 7:42 am

You could tell him a short joke, but it would go right over his head.

Tom in Florida
Reply to  Vuk
April 11, 2021 7:44 am

You need to be more specific about Earth deserts as you were for Mars. Where and when are important, otherwise it is just yada yada BS.

Vuk
Reply to  Tom in Florida
April 11, 2021 11:57 am

Hi Tom, hope all is well.
Just two quotes from Wikipedia as a rough comparison reference. Those who know better will ignore it; one or two people (and I include there myself) might be prompted to look for more specific information, and learn something in the process.

Richard (the cynical one)
Reply to  Zig Zag Wanderer
April 11, 2021 7:41 am

I guess then the sea levels have risen to the point that it is unfit for human habitation. And the hurricanes and tornadoes must be non-stop. It must be worse than we could have modelled, I mean, imagined.

2hotel9
April 11, 2021 3:58 am

Been wondering if it will actually fly, or just sit there with it’s rotors spinning. Guess we will see later today.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  2hotel9
April 11, 2021 12:49 pm

2hotel9,
I guess you may not have considered that NASA engineers know how to design Ingenuity’s helicopter rotors (things like lift coefficients versus angle-of-attack, rotor surface area, required rotor rpm , etc., versus the helicopter’s weight at the Martian surface) in order to fly at the specific Martian CO2 atmosphere’s density expected at the landing site?

Heck, one can buy commercial CFD software, anchored to real test data and used for real-world flight applications—albeit at a heavy price tag—that would allow any amateur aerodynamicist to confirm that the helicopter will indeed fly off the surface of Mars.

This is NOT a trail-and-error approach, don’t you know?

Rich Davis
Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
April 12, 2021 1:45 pm

I always worry about trail and error, Gordon. Trail and error will put you on the wrong path every time. 😉

2hotel9
Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
April 13, 2021 3:32 am

Since it ain’t working guess it is. Clearly on the wrong trail.

Andrew Wilkins
April 11, 2021 4:08 am

Now that is real and exciting science! Not the junk-science that is the CAGW dogma.

rah
April 11, 2021 4:56 am

A hiccup or a real problem? Nobody said this was going to be easy but I sure hope this problem is not fatal.

NASA Delays Ingenuity’s First Flight on Mars Due to Test-Spin Alert (sciencealert.com)

Zig Zag Wanderer
Reply to  rah
April 11, 2021 5:33 am

When you’ve spent many billions of $s on setting up an experiment like this, and you have an extreme lag in communication, you want to make sure that absolutely everything is set up correctly.

rah
Reply to  Zig Zag Wanderer
April 11, 2021 5:41 am

Obviously. But one of the blades failing to spin up to the needed RPM would doom the flight. And that is what has apparently happened according to one of the coptors sensors. Hope it’s a sensor or software problem and not a mechanical one.

Gunga Din
Reply to  rah
April 11, 2021 5:50 am

The article said a timer timed out. It didn’t say what was being timed. It sounded like a timer for more than one function to be completed.
Hopefully the solution is as simple as adding a few more seconds to the timer.

drh
Reply to  rah
April 13, 2021 2:22 pm

From a guy on the inside (me): It is a software problem and they are going to upload new software this week.

Gunga Din
Reply to  drh
April 13, 2021 4:43 pm

Good!
(I imagine that will take some time to complete … or a VERY long USB cord!)
“Fingers’ crossed.” 😎

hunterson7
April 11, 2021 5:36 am

Totally cool. Thanks for covering this.

Len Werner
April 11, 2021 7:58 am

Gotta love the double-speak from NASA–

“The helicopter is safe and healthy and communicated its full telemetry set to Earth.”

No it isn’t. When undergoing a test, the ‘check engine’ light came on, and they are trying to figure out what the fault code means.

Reply to  Len Werner
April 11, 2021 3:29 pm

re: “‘check engine’ light came on, and they are trying to figure out what the fault code means.”

My ’86 Caprice ex-cop car did that years back, the code said it was “running rich”. I had tromped on it a few times shortly before … the Rochester QuadraJet had ‘done its job’ and some sensor downstream was doing its (job) …

ResourceGuy
Reply to  Len Werner
April 11, 2021 4:18 pm

It’s probably the code for the catalytic converter that they had to include in the design. EPA and CARB are running the show.

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