Biggest science news of 2021: Igenuity helicopter flies on Mars, the first time we've conducted powered flight on another planet
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Biggest science news of 2021: Igenuity helicopter flies on Mars, the first time we’ve conducted powered flight on another planet


In April, the Ingenuity helicopter became the first vehicle ever to attempt powered flight on another planet. Theodore Tzanetos tells New Scientist of the exhilaration he felt leading the team



Technology



15 December 2021

NASA's Ingenuity helicopter unlocked its rotor blades, allowing them to spin freely, on April 7, 2021, the 47th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. They had been held in place since before launch, and the unlocking is one of several milestones that must be met before the helicopter can attempt the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. This image was captured by the Mastcam-Z imager on NASA's Perseverance Mars rover on the following sol, April 8, 2021.

The Ingenuity helicopter

NASA/JPL-Caltech

OF ALL the craft that visited the Red Planet this year, perhaps the biggest leap forward was the Ingenuity helicopter. It was shuttled to Mars in NASA’s Perseverance rover and took off on 19 April, making it the first vehicle ever to attempt powered flight on another planet.

The initial flight was a resounding success, as were the four that took place in the following fortnight. After those flights, the small craft was scheduled to end its mission as the rover drove away – but instead it continued to fly. By early December, it had made 17 ever more ambitious jaunts and scouted for Perseverance in the first part of the rover’s mission to explore Mars’s Jezero crater.

Theodore Tzanetos at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, the leader of the Ingenuity team, told New Scientist about the mission’s extraordinary success.

What was that first flight like for you?

It was exhilarating, in one word. It’s one of those moments in your life when you realise: “Wow, I can’t believe this is really happening and I’m lucky enough to be in this room right now with these people.” Nothing will ever top that moment when we announced the flight was successful.

I have to say, seeing the shadow of the craft as it took off for the first time was pretty breathtaking, even for someone not involved in the mission.

The shadows have kind of this mirror reflection effect. It makes it more real when you see your shadow, like when you see your reflection in the mirror. When you see the blades and the legs and the shadow is projected on the Martian surface, it really brings it home.

What allowed Ingenuity to outlast its initial mission timeline?

Part of what we will look back on for years to come is that question. We designed it to last 30 sols, or Martian days – we couldn’t afford any extra margin because the air is so thin that we couldn’t carry any additional mass.

That made it difficult to design anything to last on Mars because Mars is very unforgiving – it’s very cold, and the atmosphere is thin. But we’re still running. Eventually, we’ll be able to look back and learn what was the first component to fail, but for now we’re just trying to use the craft as well as we can.

What has it accomplished so far?

Ingenuity is a technology demonstration. We don’t have a science payload. Our mission was to prove that we can fly – that’s it. We knocked out our first five flights and we were lucky that the helicopter was still functioning, and we were starting to see a glimmer of the functionality that we could have for a continuing mission.

“My dream is to see fleets of spacecraft in the sky on Mars, helping future human explorers”

We were no longer just a technology demonstrator. Then our mission became to continue pushing the limits and learn how to interact with this helicopter on a longer scale, and also to scout for Perseverance. That’s been really rewarding, working with the rover team to figure out what would be the best areas to scout out. That’s something I could have never imagined doing a year ago, when all we cared about was doing our first flight.

How do you think this concept will be carried forward in future missions now that we know it works?

We have a road map for that and it’s called the Sojourner rover. It was a tech demo [that landed on Mars in 1997], this little rover the size of a microwave, and now we have Perseverance, which is the size of a car with all of these instruments on it. That’s how I view Ingenuity.

We proved that we can fly, and now we have this ground truth to help us design the future of rotorcraft. My dream is to see fleets of spacecraft in the sky on Mars, potentially helping out future human explorers, but also performing their own science.

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Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Theodore Tzanetos is the leader of the Ingenuity team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California

2021 in review

This was a year of tackling great challenges, from the covid-19 pandemic to climate change. But 2021 was also rich in scientific discoveries and major advances.

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