NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has a new mission. Having proven that powered, controlled flight is possible on the Red Planet, the Ingenuity experiment will soon embark on a new operations demonstration phase, exploring how aerial scouting and other functions could benefit future exploration of Mars and other worlds.
So “Ginny,” her primary proof of concept mission over, will serve as a scout for “Percy,” flying ahead of the rover to survey locations Perseverance will investigate in its search for life on Mars. It will also help mission planners plot the best routes for Percy to follow. She’ll fly ahead and land and wait for the rover to catch up. That’s Teamwork.
It got crowded on the International Space Station with the arrival of “Crew-2,” SpaceX’s second regular and third actual flight taking humans to the ISS (there was a test mission known as “Demo-2”). There hadn’t been eleven people on board since the Space Shuttle era.
There were other milestones as well. This was SpaceX’s first reused crew capsule to reach the orbiting platform and the first crewed mission with a reused Falcon 9 rocket. The Crew-2 astronauts themselves made history when they started boarding. This was the first time SpaceX had carried passengers from three different agencies (NASA, ESA and JAXA).
The overcrowding on the ISS came to an end just a few days later with the spectacular nighttime landing of SpaceX’s Crew-1 “Resilience” capsule with four astronauts on board. They landed in the gulf of Mexico just before 3am Eastern Time. But with cameras tuned for night the scene was clearly visible in spite of the pitch dark ocean lighting.
Crew Dragon Resilience will add to its time in space on its next mission launching the privately-funded Inspiration4 crew on a multi-day Earth orbit mission targeted for September.
A team of very smart humans flew a helicopter by remote control off the surface of Mars on April 19, 2021. It is easier to type that sentence than it is to truly appreciate the accomplishment.
The Mars Helicopter, named Ingenuity, weighs just four pounds. It is a proof of concept demonstration. That means it’s mission is just to prove that it works. It did. And it was the first time humans have achieved powered and controlled flight on another planet.
Ingenuity hitched a ride on the Perseverance rover. I wrote about Perseverance after it landed. Nicknamed “Percy,” it has a detailed science mission to look for signs of life on Mars. But first it was tasked with dropping Ingenuity, “Ginny,” onto the Martian surface, backing away and watching while the Ingenuity team tried to make their little drone fly.
This short video, taken by Perseverance, shows the entire first flight:
Mars is the closest planet to Earth, and has entranced humans since the beginning of recorded history. It is behind a paywall, but if you have access the Washington Post has produced a wonderful overview of the history of Mars exploration and the plans for this mission, known as Mars 2020.
The challenge for Ingenuity is that the atmosphere on Mars is only one percent the density of that of Earth. Strange at it seems, most of our airplanes effectively pull themselves through the atmosphere like a corkscrew pulls a cork out of a bottle. On Mars there is very little atmosphere to grab hold of. That produced a design for Ginny that meant a very low weight craft with relatively big rotors spinning at very high speeds. And of course the fact that radio signals take many minutes to get from Earth to Mars meant that Ginny, like Percy, has to be fed instructions but is then on its own to execute them. We humans find out if the task was achieved minutes or even hours later.
This was an amazing feat and in so many ways a tonic for the times in which we live. There are those who question the value of this kind of scientific research and exploration. Surveys show many people perceive the cost to be high. But in fact, the NASA budget is a tiny fraction of the military’s budget. The military budget just for its new Space Force and Space Command is higher. The debate is heated, but a majority of Americans favor continued funding for NASA.
Studies show that for every dollar spent on NASA, more than $8 is added to the economy. And you had only to watch the control room crew as the data came in documenting Ginny’s first flight on another planet to see how this research is exciting new generations of explorers. When I was a child watching the Mercury astronauts I saw images almost exclusively of white men wearing white shirts and narrow black ties. We now know that behind the scenes there were crucial if unsung members of the team kept hidden from the cameras. Today’s teams represent men and women across all demographics. If the United States is to remain competitive and really matter in the 21st century we need to do more to encourage all young people to pursue scientific careers.
Now that the helicopter concept has been proven, scientists and engineers planning future missions to Mars and elsewhere have access to a treasure trove of research as they explore the use of flying vehicles on their missions. There are, for example, many locations on Mars that are inaccessible by rover but are of great interest to planetary scientists. There is also an upcoming mission to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Titan has an atmosphere denser than that of Mars. There is already a helicopter named Dragonfly planned for that mission which is now scheduled to launch in 2026, arriving in 2034.
Even while waiting for Ginny to finish her testing, Percy is working. The MOXIE technology demonstration aboard Perseverance successfully extracted oxygen from the thin Martian atmosphere—a critical component for life support so humans can breath on the Red Planet and produce rocket fuel for the trip home.
The continuing plan for Mars 2020 is for Ingenuity to make several more test flights over the next few weeks, each one pushing the helicopter to fly higher and further away. A second flight was made on April 22nd, a third on April 25th. As often happens with technology demonstrations, it may well be pushed beyond its limits and crash on the surface. In any event, by the end of April it will be left behind as Perseverance leaves the scene to begin it’s own exploration of the Martian surface, which will include the collection of samples for retrieval on later flights.
You read that right. The Mars 2020 mission will be collecting samples of Mars to be picked up by later flights. Stay tuned.
Update – Ingenuity Tests Extended
After a successful fourth flight, NASA announced it would extend the test flight program for Ingenuity for another 30 days. Ginny’s mission was slated to end at the end of April. Now NASA plans to test the chopper’s ability to be a “scout” for future exploration by the Perseverance rover and future missions.
Perseverance will be farther from Ingenuity during the new flight phase, but the team thinks that the pair will still be able to communicate effectively. Additionally, Perseverance will not take the time to document the flights Ingenuity makes during its extended mission. NASA will continue to provide updates on Ingenuity’s progress here.
In the middle of this challenging time of pandemic and politics, a group of dedicated scientists on February 18, 2021 landed a car-sized rover designed to explore the crater Jezero on the surface of Mars. The picture above might look like one of NASA’s animations depicting the event. But it is not. The picture is real, taken by the HiRISE high resolution camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been circling the planet since March 10, 2006. The photo clearly shows the rover, named Perseverance, beneath its huge parachute. To take this photo, the crew directing the Orbiter had to calculate in advance the precise timing and position so they could instruct the Orbiter to aim its camera and catch Perseverance in flight.
The Entry, Descent and Landing phase of the mission is nicknamed the “seven minutes of terror.” It started when Perseverance entered the thin Mars atmosphere, travelling at almost 12,500 miles per hour. It ended seven minutes later when the rover, executing a Rube Goldberg machine-like series of maneuvers, touched down at a speed of less than two miles per hour. Anything faster and Perseverance would have been shattered into a collection of worthless parts spread across the Martian surface.
It seems a little strange to mourn an inanimate object. Perhaps it is the ideas the object represented that I am mourning.
The picture above shows, in all its glory, the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center in Puerto Rico, more commonly known as the Arecibo observatory. It was built in the 1960s with money from the Defense Department. Through the course of history, governments often favor their military when it comes to money and it should not be a surprise that much of the scientific research funded by the United States is funded by the Pentagon.
SpaceX’s Dragon Demo-2 flight has ended with the successful return to earth of NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley after spending more than two months on the International Space Station. As I wrote at the time of their launch, this flight marks the return to America of the ability to send humans into space.
After the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2000, Americans who wanted to go the the ISS had to buy a seat on a Russian rocket. NASA began, during the Obama-Biden administration, what is called the “Commercial Crew” program effectively outsourcing this task to private industry. SpaceX is the first to successfully demonstrate this capability. This flight was named “Demo-2.” The first regularly contracted flight of the Crew Dragon is set to take four astronauts, three Americans and one Japanese, to the space station later this year.
As they left the capsule Behnken and Hurley thanks the SpaceX team. The SpaceX communicator said, “Thanks for riding SpaceX.” For America’s space program, a new day has begun.
They have arrived! Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley opened the hatch on the Crew Dragon and joined Expedition 63 on the International Space Station at 1:22pm Eastern Time and were greeted by fellow NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. The crew will spend several days continuing to test the Dragon, making sure it is fully operational and ready to return crew members to earth. Then they will work with the other members of the space station crew to perform experiments and maintenance on the station, which has been in orbit with a human crew on board since the year 2000.
A recent study found anecdotal evidence that our increased exposure to political strife is having a negative effect on our mental health, resulting in “frayed personal relationships, compromised emotional stability, and even physical problems.” So what else is new? I, for one, am getting sick and tired of writing about politics. I see it as a service, and personally cathartic. But still a stressful task.
So for once I’ll skip a political column and try something completely different. Pretty much lost in Donald Trump’s post-acquittal victory lap, NASA gave us all a Valentine’s gift. It reprocessed and re-released an image recorded thirty years ago, February 14, 1990, by Voyager 1, at the time 3.7 billion miles from the Sun.