‘It’s thrilling, exciting and terrifying’: NASA prepares for first helicopter flight on Mars

Ingenuity hitched a ride to Mars nestled under the belly of the Perseverance rover, which landed on the Red Planet in February. The helicopter, which will only work for 31 days and can fly for 90 seconds max, is intended to demonstrate that flight is possible on another planet, which could open the door for uncrewed aircraft to see parts of the planet rovers can’t access or act as scouts for astronauts on future missions.

Ingenuity will be flying in an atmosphere that’s just one percent as dense as Earth’s atmosphere. That means that while the helicopter will be just 10 feet off the ground, it’s as if it was flying at 100,000 feet on Earth. For comparison, most commercial planes fly between 30,000 and 40,000 feet.

“It turns out, if you take a small dual-rotor counter rotating helicopter that weighs about four pounds and you make those carbon fiber blades fatter and spin them five-times faster than an Earth helicopter, you can get enough lift” to fly on Mars, Hogg said.

Hogg, who has worked at NASA since 1997, spoke about how his team is preparing for the historic flight and how the idea for a flying drone on another planet dates back to the 1990s.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s your role in the Perseverance mission?

I’ve been working on the Mars 2020 project since 2012. Today I’m the deputy surface mission manager for Mars 2020.

We plan what the rover is doing the following Martian sol [a day on Mars.] I’m the deputy running that team, so … we are running the mission. … It takes an army of people to pull that off in a way that it’s safe so we don’t lose our billion dollar asset but also in a productive way to get all the science done.

How is the team prepping for Ingenuity’s first flight?

On Saturday, we successfully completed a whole series of steps to deploy Ingenuity to the Martian surface. We spent 10 days on Mars doing that, which may seem like a long time, but a lot of important things need to happen.

After it’s been packaged up and safely attached to the bottom of the rover, it’s 150 million miles away. It made it all the way to Mars, survived launch, entry, descent and landing. We don’t want to fumble at the 99-yard line.

Over the last week or so … we finished assessing the flight zone with the rover’s cameras, we dropped off the debris shield outside the flight zone, then we drove to one end of the flight zone to begin deployment of Ingenuity to the surface. We went through several steps to do that. We lowered it on an arm with a little motor, powered it to vertical position, and finished deploying the legs. … Then we spent an extra day or two making sure there was enough clearance for the rover to drive away. … We needed to get the rover off and away so sunlight could hit Ingenuity’s solar cells within a day. It was critical to make that happen so Ingenuity could charge up its batteries and have enough energy to survive the Martian night.

Is there a camera on Ingenuity to get aerial shots of Mars?

Yes. There are two. One is a black and white lower resolution navigation camera that captures imagery at a high rate and uses computer vision to figure out where the helicopter is. The second color camera is like what you’d have on your phone for getting some color images as well.

Where did this idea come from?

What kicked off this whole thing is the fact that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab landed the first rover on Mars in the 1990s. … We landed this microwave-sized rover and it was the first time we roved on another planet. … There was discussion in various corners of JPL about what about a flying machine? … In 2013, they had a flying machine research lab. Our then-director at JPL Charles Elachi had gone to a conference and came back to JPL wondering if we could do a flying machine. He toured the drone lab at JPL and said let’s put together a proposal for Mars 2020. The deadline was only 2 months away. Bob Balaram [the chief Ingenuity engineer] and his team burned the midnight oil and got a proposal in.

What makes flight so difficult on Mars?

It’s flying in such a thin atmosphere. But also, if you take a step back, we’re doing something on another planet that has a one way light time of 15 minutes. That means if I bought a remote control car and got it to the Martian surface alive and well, and hit go on the joystick, it would be 15 minutes before it started moving and another 15 minutes before I knew it was moving. … So you need an autonomous capability.

This is the next level of achievement I’m describing, being able to fly something in 1 percent of Earth’s atmosphere on the surface of another planet that’s 150 million miles away. These are mind boggling engineering achievements we’re dealing with here. … It turns out, if you take a small dual-rotor counter rotating helicopter that weighs about four pounds and you make those carbon fiber blades fatter and spin them five times faster than an Earth helicopter, you can get enough lift to lift a very lightweight package.

So with the lag, it will fly and land before you even know it?

The flights are approximately 90 seconds on average. We send instructions for the day to the rover. The rover passes on instructions for the helicopter to a base station … over a radio connection after Ingenuity wakes up and gets in communication with the rover. … So sometime on Mars, … it will carry out those instructions for its first flight.

The results of that flight get sent during the flight to the base station, then relayed to the rover. Then the rover waits for a Mars orbiter to pass overhead and minutes or hours later, it relays everything that happened to the deep space network here on Earth [which takes 15 minutes.] Then we get the story of what happened on Mars and we unpack it all. Hopefully we will be celebrating.

All those steps happen with humans just waiting on Earth to see how it all plays out.

I can’t imagine how stressful that is.

I’m remembering Saturday afternoon. … We determined that the helicopter had dropped and it had turned on for the first time, so we knew it was alive. Then we allowed the rover to drive away. We were waiting for an hour and a half to see how the drive went and if we successfully uncovered helo to beat the 25-hour deadline [after which Ingenuity would not have enough battery charge to survive a night on Mars.] … There are moments where it feels like a week of your life is going by waiting to see if something is happening that you spent seven years engineering. It’s thrilling, exciting and terrifying. This is why we do what we do.

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