April 17, 2024

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NASA is playing hide-and-seek with the relentless creativity of the Mars Helicopter

For about a week in April, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory anxiously searched for signs of life on Mars.

Lost somewhere in the undulating terrain of the Martian riverbed is the magnificent, pint-sized, amazingly durable helicopter that has just completed its forty-ninth flight on the Red Planet. Every day, the team searched for a radio signal confirming that the plane was OK.

On April 2nd, Ingenuity soared 52 feet into the Martian sky—a record height for a drone—to capture a suborbital image of the Martian landscape.

After landing, it disappeared. When the scientists tried to upload the instructions for a later flight, the Ingenuity radio tag disappeared.

Scientists finally located Ingenuity after six days of searching, as the helicopter’s Martian companion, the Persevering rover, reached a ridge and approached the spot where the helicopter had landed.

NASA engineer Travis Browne described the episode in a blog post Last week, we gave a dramatic look at the agency’s exploration of Mars, and the incredible resilience of the Ingenuity helicopter. Its toughness continues to surprise NASA two years after scientists expected the small craft to crash.

The helicopter is flying again, Ingenuity team leader Teddy Zanetos told The Washington Post, and its longevity has inspired the team to include helicopters modeled on it in a future mission to Mars — a testament to just how powerful Ingenuity has proven itself.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” Zanetos said. “This is a once in a lifetime thing.”

Creativity defied the odds the day it first lifted off from the Martian soil. The four-pound aircraft is about 19 inches high and little more than an avionics box with four long legs on one end and two rotating blades and a solar panel on the other. But it made its first powered flight on another planet — what NASA called a “Wright Brothers moment” — after arriving at Mars in April 2021.

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NASA flies a helicopter on Mars, marking the first time a plane has flown on another planet

However, the creation was never intended to be more than an $80 million proof of concept. It called a trip to Mars with Perseverance, an SUV-sized rover that would carry out an intended NASA mission to study the Martian soil.

Ingenuity, which is controlled by radio signals transmitted from Perseverance, completed its five-flight mission—a simple series of demonstrations that the helicopter design will work in Mars’ thin atmosphere—in May 2021. The Tzanetos team then got approval to continue flying.

“At this point, we are in lost time,” Zanetos said. “None of the mechanisms are designed to last longer than that.”

Somehow, they did — for months and months, and dozens of more flights. By May 2022, it looked as if the story of Miracle Creation would finally collapse to (Martian) Earth. winter At first, NASA feared that low temperatures could cause Ingenuity’s solar-charged batteries to fail, or even freeze overnight.

The helicopter entered a reduced power state after its 28th flight in late April of that year, and scientists told The Post they weren’t sure if it would fly again.

NASA’s Mars Helicopter was supposed to fly it five times. Moved 28.

Incredibly, the sensitive parts of creativity withstood the Martian cold. But Zanetos said NASA still faces the challenge of reconnecting with the helicopter every time its components freeze. The creative team modified using data from the sunrise on Mars to calculate when each morning the helicopter would melt down and regain enough charge to power it.

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Results? A hide-and-seek type game, where NASA sends Ingenuity on flights, then uses its model to calculate when the helicopter will come back online to receive its next instructions. That was enough to get Creativity and its rogue mission team through the Martian winter.

“We still need to play some of these games occasionally, depending on how cold or windy it is overnight,” Zanetos said. “But the team has gotten really good at it.”

NASA got into a more nerve-wracking game of hide-and-seek with Ingenuity in April after Flight 49, escorting Perseverance’s helicopter over rugged terrain thought to be an ancient river delta.

Team members were not worry when they are Brown writes that he failed to contact the helicopter during the first few days after the flight; Their process sometimes required several days to find the ingenuity. But their fears increased as nearly a week passed. Zanetos wondered if the brave chopper had finally run out of luck.

“all [day] Tzanitos said his “blessing” to creativity. “You are always ready for the end of the job.”

Finally, after six Martian days of losing touch with Creation, the team detected a “lonely, lonely” radio signal, Brown wrote. The next day, another signal came – confirmation that creativity lives on. The team eventually concluded that a hillside had blocked the helicopter’s signals from reaching the rover.

Creativity flew again for the 50th time on April 13, rising nearly 59 feet to once again break the altitude record.

Tzanitos said the team will continue to push the boundaries of creativity. While Perseverance continues its mission of collecting Martian soil samples, Ingenuity is free to roam the skies ahead of the rover as an explorer, collecting valuable data on the Red Planet and performing as the first Mars rover.

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And perhaps creativity will not be the last. In 2028, NASA plans to send a plane probe to Mars to retrieve samples collected by Perseverance. Then craft launch off Mars — the agency’s latest astronomer — and return samples to Earth for study.

This task has been redesigned, Zanettos said, in the wake of the success of Ingenuity. NASA is now planning to send Two helicopters Of a design nearly identical to the probe’s as a backup to retrieve the Perseverance samples in case the probe malfunctions by the time the probe arrives in the year 2030.

Creativity is unlikely to continue by that time. But for now, the brave chopper refuses to die.

“Two years ago, if you asked me what I hoped would become of Creativity, I would have said, ‘Well, I hope our children or grandchildren can build this,’” Zanetos said. “… Here we go, Creativity is still flying, and we are designing the second generation .”