NASA rover faces 'seven minutes of terror' before landing on Mars

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NASA makes history with successful helicopter flight on Mars
'We can now say that human beings have flown an aircraft on another planet'

Author of the article:Reuters
Reuters
Steve Gorman
Publishing date:Apr 19, 2021 • 3 hours ago • 3 minute read • Join the conversation
The shadow of NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity is seen during its first flight on the planet April 19, 2021.
The shadow of NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity is seen during its first flight on the planet April 19, 2021. PHOTO BY NASA/JPL-CALTECH/ASU/HANDOUT /via REUTERS
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LOS ANGELES — NASA’s miniature robot helicopter Ingenuity performed a successful takeoff and landing on Mars early on Monday, achieving the first powered, controlled flight by an aircraft over the surface of another planet, the U.S. space agency said.

The twin-rotor whirligig’s debut on the Red Planet marked a 21st-century Wright Brothers moment for NASA, which said success could pave the way for new modes of exploration on Mars and other destinations in the solar system, such as Venus and Saturn’s moon Titan.


Mission managers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles burst into applause and cheers as engineering data beamed back from Mars confirmed that the 4-pound (1.8-kg) solar-powered helicopter had performed its maiden 39-second flight as planned three hours earlier.

Altimeter readings from the rotorcraft showed that it became airborne at 3:34 a.m. EDT (0734 GMT), climbed as programmed to a height of 10 feet (3 metres), then hovered steadily in place over the Martian surface for half a minute before touching back down safely on its four legs, NASA said.

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During NASA’s presentation of the event livestreamed from JPL headquarters, mission managers also displayed its first images from the flight.

NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity makes its first flight on the planet in this still image taken from a video on April 19, 2021.
NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity makes its first flight on the planet in this still image taken from a video on April 19, 2021. PHOTO BY NASA/JPL-CALTECH/ASU/HANDOUT /via REUTERS
A black-and-white photo taken by a downward-pointing onboard camera while the helicopter was aloft showed the distinct shadow cast by Ingenuity in the Martian sunlight onto the ground just below it.

And a snippet of colour video footage captured by a separate camera mounted on the NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance, parked about 200 feet away, showed the helicopter in flight against the orange-coloured landscape surrounding it.

“We can now say that human beings have flown an aircraft on another planet,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at JPL.


SHORT FLIGHT FROM FAR AWAY

Despite the flight’s brevity, it marked a historic feat in interplanetary aviation, taking place on an “air field” 173 million miles from Earth on the floor of a vast Martian basin called Jezero Crater.

NASA likened the achievement to the Wright Brothers’ first controlled flight of their motor-driven airplane near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December 1903 – a takeoff and landing that covered just 120 feet (37 metres) in 12 seconds.

Paying tribute to that modest but monumental first flight, NASA engineers affixed a tiny swath of wing fabric from the original Wright flyer under Ingenuity’s solar panel before sending it on its way to Mars.

“Ingenuity is the latest in a long and storied tradition of NASA projects achieving a space exploration goal once thought impossible,” acting NASA chief Steve Jurczyk said in a statement. “Today’s results indicate the sky – a least on Mars – may not be the limit.”

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The tiny rotorcraft was carried to the Red Planet strapped to the belly of the Mars rover Perseverance, a six-wheeled astrobiology lab that touched down in Jezero Crater on Feb. 18 after a nearly seven-month journey through space.

Ingenuity was developed as a technology demonstration, separate from Perseverance’s primary mission to search for traces of ancient microorganisms and collect samples of Martian rock for eventual return to Earth for further analysis.

With the helicopter’s first outing deemed a success, NASA plans to send the aircraft on several additional, progressively more ambitious flights in the weeks ahead.

Building a helicopter that could fly on Mars posed a major challenge for JPL engineers.

While Mars possesses much less gravity to overcome than Earth, its atmosphere is just 1% as dense, making it especially difficult to generate aerodynamic lift. To compensate, engineers equipped Ingenuity with rotor blades that are larger (four feet long) and spin far more rapidly than would be needed on Earth for a similar aircraft of its size.

The design was successfully tested in vacuum chambers built at JPL to simulate Martian conditions, but it remained to be seen whether Ingenuity would actually fly on the fourth planet from the sun, until Monday.

Because of the enormous distances involved, Ingenuity was designed to execute pre-programmed flight instructions autonomously, using sophisticated onboard pilot and navigation systems.

The small, lightweight aircraft also had to withstand punishing cold, with nighttime temperatures dropping as low as 130 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius), using solar power alone to recharge and keep its internal components properly heated.

The planned flight was delayed for a week by a technical glitch during a test spin of the aircraft’s rotors on April 9. But NASA said it resolved that issue by transmitting a few additional commands to its flight sequence last week.
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NASA extracts breathable oxygen from thin Martian air
Author of the article:Reuters
Reuters
Steve Gorman
Publishing date:Apr 22, 2021 • 1 day ago • 2 minute read • 6 Comments
This NASA photo shows NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter achieves powered, controlled flight for the first time on another planet, hovering for several seconds before touching back down on April 19, 2021.
This NASA photo shows NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter achieves powered, controlled flight for the first time on another planet, hovering for several seconds before touching back down on April 19, 2021. PHOTO BY NASA/JPL-CALTECH/HANDOUT /AFP via Getty Images
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LOS ANGELES — NASA has logged another extraterrestrial first on its latest mission to Mars: converting carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere into pure, breathable oxygen, the U.S. space agency said on Wednesday.

The unprecedented extraction of oxygen, literally out of thin air on Mars, was achieved Tuesday by an experimental device aboard Perseverance, a six-wheeled science rover that landed on the Red Planet Feb. 18 after a seven-month journey from Earth.


In its first activation, the toaster-sized instrument dubbed MOXIE, short for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, produced about 5 grams of oxygen, equivalent to roughly 10 minutes’ worth of breathing for an astronaut, NASA said. Although the initial output was modest, the feat marked the first experimental extraction of a natural resources from the environment of another planet for direct use by humans.

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“MOXIE isn’t just the first instrument to produce oxygen on another world,” Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a statement. She called it the first technology of its kind to help future missions “live off the land” of another planet.


The instrument works through electrolysis, which uses extreme heat to separate oxygen atoms from molecules of carbon dioxide, which accounts for about 95% of the atmosphere on Mars.

The remaining 5% of Mars’ atmosphere, which is only about 1% as dense Earth’s, consists primarily of molecular nitrogen and argon. Oxygen exists on Mars in negligible trace amounts.

But an abundant supply is considered critical to eventual human exploration of the Red Planet, both as a sustainable source of breathable air for astronauts and as a necessary ingredient for rocket fuel to fly them home.

The volumes required for launching rockets into space from Mars are particularly daunting.

According to NASA, getting four astronauts off the Martian surface would take about 15,000 pounds (7 metric tons) of rocket fuel, combined with 55,000 pounds (25 metric tons) of oxygen.


Transporting a one-ton oxygen-conversion machine to Mars is more practical than trying to haul 25 tons of oxygen in tanks from Earth, MOXIE principal investigator Michael Hecht, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in NASA’s news release.

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Astronauts living and working on Mars would require perhaps one metric ton of oxygen between them to last an entire year, Hecht said.

MOXIE is designed to generate up to 10 grams per hour as a proof of concept, and scientists plan to run the machine at least another nine times over the next two years under different conditions and speeds, NASA said.

The first oxygen conversion run came a day after NASA achieved the historic first controlled powered flight of an aircraft on another planet with a successful takeoff and landing of a miniature robot helicopter on Mars.

Like MOXIE, the twin-rotor chopper dubbed Ingenuity hitched a ride to Mars with Perseverance, whose primary mission is to search for fossilized traces of ancient microbes that may have flourished on Mars billions of years ago.
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