Ingenuity flies. On Mars
A drone has flown on Mars.
For the first time.
Yea; we know they will claim it for themselves and say it is a helicopter. But the commands to fly it were sent from 278million kilometres away at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
Yes. It is an unmanned aerial vehicle for us, and it has taken off the ground and landed again.
Years from now, stakeholders in the aviation industry will be asking each other; where were you when Earth first took its successful flight on Mars?
And one would scratch one’s chin like a real sage and say something like; I remember it like yesterday. It was a terrible day of upheaval in European football, with football authorities up in arms against a dozen rebel clubs who had decided it was high time they bypassed the middlemen and share amongst themselves the proceeds from fan exploitation.
Jose Mourinho had been sacked from his 100th job as a football manager, and the football world was just a shambles that day.
The news broke that Ingenuity – NASA’s Mars Helicopter – had actually succeeded in taking its first baby steps on the red planet’s thing atmosphere and survived to tell the tale.
It was a great day.
“It’s real; it’s real,” said Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung, gleefully banging the table and thumbing-up everybody and nobody in particular. “We can now say human beings have flown a drone on another planet.”
According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Ingenuity “is a technology demonstration to test powered flight on another world for the first time. It hitched a ride to Mars on the Perseverance rover. Once the rover found a suitable landing location, it released Ingenuity from its womb to perform a series of test flights over a 30-Martian-day experimental window beginning in early April.”
For the first flight, the helicopter would take off a few feet from the ground, hover in the air for about 20 to 30 seconds, then land.
That in itself was a major milestone: the very first powered flight in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars. After that, NASA says the team would attempt additional experimental flights of incrementally farther distance and greater altitude.
After the helicopter completes its technology demonstration, Perseverance will continue its scientific mission.
The odds stacked against the 1,8kg, $85million autonomous bird were well narrated since it landed on the hostile planet aboard Perseverance in February this year – it is extremely extreme cold on Mars, and the air is so dangerously thin that a flight, even for a few metres off the ground for a few seconds would be akin to Mission Impossible.
But NASA said the helicopter spun its featherweight twin carbon fibre rotor blades to rise about 10 feet into the thin Martian air. Amid cheers from engineers at the JPL, it hovered briefly in the barren breeze before safely landing around 7:30 a.m. GMT on Monday.
“It’s the next step in expanding our capabilities to explore another planet,” NASA acting administrator Steve Jurczyk said. “A helicopter could be used as a scout for robotic missions to look over the horizon and eventually as a partner for astronauts on Mars.”
Because radio signals take too long to travel between the planets for any human operator to intervene, commands to Ingenuity were transmitted on Sunday by chief pilot, Håvard Grip, and his JPL colleagues had transmitted commands across 278million kilometres of space to set Ingenuity’s flight in motion.
“We upload the commands we want to run, and then we die inside for hours waiting to learn what happened,” said Ingenuity lead operations manager Tim Canham. “Then, when all the data comes back, we frantically get online and look at it to make sure that everything went the way we wanted it to go.”
Given the time lag in radio transmissions resulting from the relative positions of Earth and Mars and the satellites sending back the data, the controllers had no way of knowing that the flight was a success until almost 16 hours later when the flight data trickled back to Earth.
The weather forecasts on Mars had not been so friendly during the pre-flight preparations, with wind speeds of up to 72 kilometres predicted — almost twice the maximum wind speed that had been used for flight tests of Ingenuity on Earth. But the team decided to take its chanced because computer simulations had suggested the helicopter’s autonomous flight control systems could handle stronger winds safely.