NASA Ingenuity: Meet the woman launching a helicopter on Mars

What does it take to construct a helicopter to fly on Mars? 

For starters, you possibly can neglect the distant management. Mars is greater than 30 million miles away on a great day, so the time delay in sending and receiving indicators means you could not fly the spacecraft with a joystick — you need to ship waypoints upfront from right here on Earth and hope for the perfect. 

It additionally must cost itself. And it has to have the ability to take off within the extremely skinny Martian ambiance (roughly 100 occasions thinner than Earth’s ambiance), which means the complete helicopter — together with photo voltaic panel, batteries, computer systems, rotors and touchdown gear — has to weigh lower than Four kilos. And the way do you take a look at it in a simulated Martian setting? Effectively, you are going to must design that course of from scratch as properly. 

MiMi Aung, mission chief of NASA’s Mars Ingenuity Helicopter Mission, observes a flight take a look at with JPL engineers Teddy Tzanetos (left) and Bob Balaram (proper). 


It would sound like an unattainable activity, however that is precisely the problem that the crew at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory confronted in 2013 once they set about answering a query that had been tossed round NASA for many years: Can we fly a spacecraft on Mars? In July 2020, the Ingenuity helicopter launched on its way to Mars, connected to the stomach of the Perseverance rover. And in early 2021, because of the arduous work of the JPL crew, we might lastly see Ingenuity full its first take a look at flight, changing into the primary plane to fly on one other world. 

Watching the complete factor from again right here on Earth will likely be MiMi Aung, a 30-year veteran of JPL and the mission chief for the Ingenuity helicopter mission. 

For Aung, the Mars helicopter expertise demonstration is an opportunity to discover the crimson planet from an entire special approach. 

“I need to add an actual dimension to area exploration — that is what drove me,” she says. “We examine Mars with spacecraft in orbit. And we have now rovers now on the floor that may rove. However we’re not utilizing the aerial dimension. Including that dimension was what drove me.”

Your entire construct and design course of was an train in teamwork, troubleshooting and a relentless effort to cut back mass so the helicopter might truly fly. The engineering crew established that the helicopter would want twin rotors measuring Four toes (1.2 meters) to generate carry within the Martian ambiance and, in consequence, the complete physique couldn’t weigh greater than Four kilos (1.eight kilograms). 

“Each self-discipline actually needed to come collectively and say, ‘Below this less-than-4-pound restrict, can we pack on this functionality of all of the computer systems, all of the rotor programs, all of the sensors, batteries, photo voltaic panels, touchdown gear, all of that — can all of them be packed in in an unprecedented manner?” says Aung. “All people needed to pitch in and each gram was a problem.”

In Episode 5 of Making Space: The Female Frontier we go behind the scenes with Aung on the Ingenuity helicopter mission — from the grueling timelines and the push to construct a full-scale prototype in 11 months (“that was nuts,” says Aung) to the fun of seeing the helicopter take flight for the primary time and what’s going to occur subsequent when it will get to Mars. 

You may hearken to the episode within the participant on the prime of this story. Or seek for Making House: The Feminine Frontier in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you hear.

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Claire Reilly