One Small Drone for Mars, One Giant Leap for Mars Lovers

Dear Rich Lifer,

History was made yesterday when a small robotic helicopter named Ingenuity became the first powered craft to fly on another world!

The autonomous copter hovered in the extremely cold and dangerously thin air before landing safely at 3:30 am EST. This flight was the first of five planned for the next 30 days.

Data from the flight streamed live from Ingenuity to Earth, where mission engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California watched and celebrated their record-breaking achievement.

MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager, was ecstatic over the feat and exclaimed, “It’s real; it’s real. We can now say human beings have flown a drone on another planet. We’ve been talking about our Wright Brothers moment on another planet for so long. And now, here it is.”

Today we will explore this groundbreaking mission and bring you updates on the many exciting American expeditions to Mars that are ongoing.

Read on…

Ingenuity’s Journey

NASA’s Perseverance rover, with Ingenuity in tow, arrived at Mars’ Jericho Crater in February 2021.

Ingenuity is a drone, smaller than a picnic basket, that was designed as an engineering experiment to prove that powered flight is possible on Mars and to help NASA plan for future drones use in planetary exploration.

Drones could provide access to terrains that are far too remote or rugged for rovers to reach. The hope would be to use drones to explore Mars’ Valles Marineris, the largest canyon in the solar system, or the Olympus Mons shield volcano, which is about 2.5 times the height of Mount Everest.

NASA acting administrator Steve Jurczyk said that Ingenuity’s success is “the next step in expanding our capabilities to explore another planet. 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.”

How Ingenuity Works

Flying on Mars is practically impossible because there’s so little air to push against.

At the Mars surface, the atmosphere is 1/100th as dense as Earth’s. So, to generate enough power for the drone to lift up, its two rotors — each about four feet wide — had to spin in opposite directions for over 2,500 revolutions a minute.

Ingenuity, weighing only four pounds, is four feet in width and 19 inches in height, with carbon fiber legs. The drone’s insulated main body includes a navigation camera, a microprocessor like the ones used in many smartphones, and lithium-ion batteries designed to withstand nighttime temperatures that can drop to negative 130 degrees fahrenheit.

The two rotor blades are on top of the main body of the drone and are much larger, stiffer and faster than would be needed to fly a drone on earth. In fact, they spin five times faster than the rotor blades of a conventional helicopter.

Above the blades, a sheet of solar cells rests and charges Ingenuity’s batteries. The solar cells also have an antenna that transmits flight data to the Perseverance rover, which then delays the information to Earth via satellite.

Ingenuity was on autopilot for its entire flight — out of sight, direct control, or contact with the people awaiting a status update at NASA’s JPL. Radio signals take too long to travel between Mars and Earth for a human operator to be involved in the flight.

Ingenuity Makes History

On Sunday, Ingenuity’s chief pilot, Håvard Grip, and his colleagues at JPL had dispatched commands across 173 million miles of space to set Ingenuity’s flight in motion.

Because of the position between Mars and Earth, there is significant lag time in radio transmissions between the planets. Due to this, Mr. Grip and his team had no idea if the flight was successful until 16 hours later!

Ingenuity lead operations manager Tim Canham explained the stress involved by recalling:

We upload the commands we want to run, and then we die inside for hours waiting to learn what happened. 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.

NASA had been worried about the scheduled flight because weather reports showed winds of 13-45 miles an hour in Ingenuity’s flight zone. These winds were twice the maximum speed the drone was tested with on Earth.

The engineers had timed the flight for midday Mars time on Sunday when winds were expected to be their least severe. So they waited in anxious anticipation for the data to come in early Monday morning.

By analyzing the altitude and position measurements from the helicopter’s laser altimeter and sensors they concluded the flight had been successful! Images from the drone’s navigation camera and images captured by Perseverance also confirmed the data.

The drone flew for about 40 total seconds, hovering around 10 feet in the air before touching back down on the surface of Mars.

Mars Milestones

This latest, exciting development joins a growing list of history-making space explorations this year.
In February, the United Arab Emirates successfully put its $200 million Hope spacecraft in orbit around Mars to begin a two-year weather mission. Soon after, a Chinese probe named Tianwen-1 entered Mars orbit. China also plans to land its first rover on Mars’ surface sometime in May or June.
These two missions join spacecrafts already in orbit from the European Space Agency, the U.S. and India.

Once Ingenuity completes the rest of its scheduled flights, Perseverance is set to begin a two-year search for signs of past life on Mars. The rover will accumulate soil samples for eventual return to Earth by a series of retrieval missions carried out jointly by NASA and the European Space Agency.

The next flight for Ingenuity will be no earlier than April 22nd, as the drone needs a “rest day” to charge its solar panel.

Mr. Jurczyk hinted at a bright future for space exploration in a statement, saying: “We don’t know exactly where Ingenuity will lead us, but today’s results indicate the sky — at least on Mars — may not be the limit.”

To a richer life,

The Rich Life Roadmap Team

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