Archive for Morgan McFall-Johnsen

NASA’s Mars helicopter took flight for the first time, opening the door for a new generation of space drones

ingenuity mars helicopter pre flight thumb 2x1
Left: NASA's Ingenuity helicopter on the surface of Mars, photographed by the Perseverance rover. Right: An illustration of Ingenuity flying.

NASA's Ingenuity space helicopter has lifted off from the Martian surface, flown, and landed safely, pioneering a technology that could revolutionize the way we explore other planets.

The 4-pound drone began to spin its four carbon-fiber blades early Monday. Spinning in opposite directions at 2,500 rotations per minute - about 5 times the speed of a helicopter on Earth - the blades gained enough traction in the thin Martian atmosphere to lift Ingenuity into the air.

mars helicopter ingenuity nasa gif

The drone climbed about 10 feet above the red-dust ground and hovered there for about 30 seconds. It was the first powered, controlled flight ever conducted on another planet.

Though 10 feet might not sound like much, hovering there is the equivalent of flying three times higher than the peak of Mount Everest, since Mars' atmosphere has 1% the density of Earth's.

Ingenuity's purpose on Mars was simply to show that rotorcraft technology can work in that kind of harsh environment. Its mission is now a success.

Two cameras on the bottom of Ingenuity should have recorded footage throughout the flight. The Perseverance rover - which carried Ingenuity to Mars - watched the liftoff from a nearby overlook, filming as well. So the video footage from both robots should be available over the next few days, according to NASA officials.

NASA Perseverance
The Perseverance rover captured a "selfie" with Ingenuity before driving to an overlook to watch the helicopter fly.

Ingenuity had to fly autonomously, since it takes 8 minutes for signals to travel between Earth and Mars. So although it was the dead of night in Pasadena, California, a team of NASA engineers was wide awake, waiting to hear from the helicopter. They'd spent five years building the vehicle in preparation for this moment but couldn't do anything to control it in real time. In fact, they didn't hear from the helicopter until about three hours after it flew.

At 6:52 a.m. ET, mission controllers received a signal that Ingenuity had touched down in one piece. The room erupted in cheers and applause.

Before the flight, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for science, told Insider that beyond this particular helicopter, the flight has proven that NASA "can add an aerial dimension to discovery and exploration on Mars."

"That aerial dimension, of course, opens up aspects of science and overall exploration that, frankly, at this moment in time are only our dreams," he said.

NASA's space-drone dreams

mars astronauts helicopter drone skitch
An illustration shows NASA astronauts working on the surface of Mars, with an Ingenuity-like helicopter flying to the left.

Space helicopters similar to Ingenuity could someday explore canyons and mountains, study large regions faster than a rover can, or even do reconnaissance for future astronauts.

These space drones could fly "over ravines, down canyons, up mountains," Josh Ravich, mechanical lead for the Ingenuity team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Insider. "Even rocky terrain is fairly inaccessible to the rovers but much more easily accessed by a rotorcraft."

NASA already has a helicopter mission in development: A rotorcraft called Dragonfly is set to launch toward Saturn's moon Titan in 2027. It aims to investigate whether that methane-rich world could host alien life.

dragonfly titan helicopter nasa
An artist's impression of the Dragonfly helicopter on Titan's surface.

But Dragonfly is still only the beginning of NASA's space-drone dreams.

"Instead of a large rover carrying a small helicopter, imagine maybe a large helicopter carrying a small rover in the future," Ravich said.

Zurbuchen said he could even imagine a "fleet" of flying robots assisting future Mars astronauts.

"I'm sure our community will look at any and all options to bring controlled flight to bear as a tool of research and exploration," Zurbuchen said. "I'm sure they'll think of aspects that I cannot think of right now."

The first of up to 5 high-risk, high-reward flights

mars ingenuity helicopter rotor blades spin
The Perseverance rover captured the Ingenuity helicopter before (left) and after (right) spinning its rotor blades.

Since all of Ingenuity's flights are demonstrations of an experimental technology, NASA engineers are fully prepared for the next attempts to fail.

"We are aware that failure is more likely in this kind of scenario, and we're comfortable with it because of the upside potential that success has," Zurbuchen said.

But if all goes well, Ingenuity's fifth and final venture could take it up to 15 feet high and out over 980 feet of Martian ground.

By then, though, "it would be unlikely to land safely, because we'll start going into unsurveyed areas," MiMi Aung, the project manager for Ingenuity, said in a briefing.

"If we do have a bad landing, that will be the end of mission," she added. "The lifetime will be determined by how well it lands, pretty much."

In NASA's eyes, though, Ingenuity is already victorious, since Monday's feat provides unprecedented data about flight on Mars that will inform future rotorcraft projects. The worst-case scenario, Ravich said, would have been if Ingenuity didn't fly at all.

Read the original article on Business Insider

NASA is developing a plan to build an Arecibo-like telescope on the moon

lunar crater radio telescope
An illustration of the Lunar Crater Radio Telescope concept.

NASA is paying a team of researchers to develop a plan for a telescope on the far side of the moon.

The Lunar Crater Radio Telescope (LCRT), as the concept is called, would be a lot like the Arecibo telescope, which collapsed in December. A huge dish would collects radio waves from the cosmos and amplify them so that scientists could analyze the signals. The difference is that on the moon, such a telescope would be shielded from the cacophony of radio signals that such a device on Earth would hear from all kinds of equipment and satellites.

To build the LCRT, rock-climbing robots would suspend a kilometer-wide dish inside a lunar crater. The telescope would be nearly three times wider than Arecibo, and its lunar perch would give it a much better view of the universe.

NASA announced last week that it will give a team within the agency $500,000 to refine their concept of the telescope's design and craft a plan for building it.

"It's very challenging, but it's something that I think is achievable with present-day technology," Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay, a NASA engineer who leads that team, told Insider.

'We really do not know what the universe looks like'

Arecibo discovered the first known planet beyond our solar system, mapped Venus' surface, and detected a pair of stars that confirmed Einstein's theory of general relativity.

arecibo radio antenna observatory puerto rico overhead view 20050805 naic national science foundation nsf
The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, one of the world's largest radio telescopes, pictured before its collapse.

However, the telescope was at a disadvantage: Earth's atmosphere garbles radio waves with a wavelength higher than 10 meters, so it blocked Arecibo's view of the earliest stages of the universe. Building a telescope on the moon, far from atmospheric interference, would allow astronomers to finally see what they've been missing.

"This is at the stage when the first stars were being formed in the universe, or even before that, when the first matter was formed but the stars hadn't been formed yet," Bandyopadhyay said.

Studying the early universe could help scientists understand the origins of dark matter, which outweighs visible matter six to one.

"Above-10-meter wavelengths, we really do not know what the universe looks like," Bandyopadhyay said. "We don't know what we're going to discover in those wavelengths."

The lunar telescope isn't a NASA mission, but the agency wants to know more

sls space launch system nasa
An artist's rendering of the Space Launch System, NASA's next moon rocket, lifting off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Bandyopadhyay's project is one of six that recently won similar sums from the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC), which awards funding to help researchers flesh out futuristic ideas like this. These "phase II" grants allow researchers to continue studying their early-stage concepts over the next two years.

In addition to the LCRT, NASA's list of concepts includes fungus-based space habitats and a swarm of kite-like spacecraft that would explore Venus' clouds.

"All projects are still in the early stages of development, with most requiring a decade or more of technology maturation. They are not considered official NASA missions," NASA said in a statement.

Like the other projects, Bandyopadhyay's team previously got a $125,000 NASA grant to investigate the telescope project's feasibility.

He's hopeful that the agency will one day take the LCRT on as an official mission.

No humans required: Robots could build the telescope

duaxel rover climbing robot
A DuAxel rover participates in field tests in the Mojave Desert.

The LCRT team has already picked out a few craters on the moon's far side that would be big enough for the telescope dish, each about 3 to 5 kilometers (2 to 3 miles) wide. Now they have to figure out how to get the wire-mesh structure into one of those craters.

One potential plan is to land two enormous landers on the edge of the chosen crater - one carrying the mesh and the other carrying 20 crater-climbing DuAxel rovers. The rovers from that second lander would lay out a series of guiding wires on which the first lander would roll out the telescope's mesh net.

Bandyopadhyay's team estimates that DuAxel bots could get the job done autonomously in just 10 days, well before the sun would set on that side of the moon for its 15-day night.

the moon surface
The moon as viewed by NASA's Mariner 10 probe in 1973.

A second option is to use harpoons to deploy the mesh, though that would take about five months, and the robotic equipment would have to survive long lunar nights. The plus side, however, is that Bandyopadhyay estimates this method would be several billion dollars cheaper.

In their first phase of research, Bandyopadhyay's team picked out a few moon craters that could host their telescope and plotted out the ideas for climbing robots and harpoons. They also laid out the LCRT's scientific objective: gathering signals from the "Dark Ages" of the early universe and filtering out the cosmic radio noise of our Milky Way.

Now, with their new NASA funding, the group must pick the right materials for the science they want to do.

"In the current phase, our most challenging thing is actually designing a mesh that satisfies multiple different constraints," Bandyopadhyay said. Those constraints include making a mesh base for the telescope that would be lightweight enough to launch aboard a rocket. The mesh would simultaneously have to be flexible enough to be deployed on the moon, durable enough to survive dramatic temperature changes there, and still able to conduct radio astronomy.

The team will also do more research into the ways to build this telescope, conduct some risk analyses, and lay out a work plan.

Bandyopadhyay hopes his team will come out of this next phase of research with a cost estimate and a solid pitch for a future NASA mission.

"If this mission does get funded through the next stages, I would be very surprised if LCRT was successfully deployed on the moon before I retire. And I'm a very young scientist," Bandyopadhyay said. "Usually things in space of this magnitude really take time. So, yeah, I'm looking forward to the journey, and this will be a journey of a lifetime."

Read the original article on Business Insider

NASA is developing a plan to build an Arecibo-like telescope on the moon

lunar crater radio telescope
An illustration of the Lunar Crater Radio Telescope concept.

NASA is paying a team of researchers to develop a plan for a telescope on the far side of the moon.

The Lunar Crater Radio Telescope (LCRT), as the concept is called, would be a lot like the Arecibo telescope, which collapsed in December. A huge dish would collects radio waves from the cosmos and amplify them so that scientists could analyze the signals. The difference is that on the moon, such a telescope would be shielded from the cacophony of radio signals that such a device on Earth would hear from all kinds of equipment and satellites.

To build the LCRT, rock-climbing robots would suspend a kilometer-wide dish inside a lunar crater. The telescope would be nearly three times wider than Arecibo, and its lunar perch would give it a much better view of the universe.

NASA announced last week that it will give a team within the agency $500,000 to refine their concept of the telescope's design and craft a plan for building it.

"It's very challenging, but it's something that I think is achievable with present-day technology," Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay, a NASA engineer who leads that team, told Insider.

'We really do not know what the universe looks like'

Arecibo discovered the first known planet beyond our solar system, mapped Venus' surface, and detected a pair of stars that confirmed Einstein's theory of general relativity.

arecibo radio antenna observatory puerto rico overhead view 20050805 naic national science foundation nsf
The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, one of the world's largest radio telescopes, pictured before its collapse.

However, the telescope was at a disadvantage: Earth's atmosphere garbles radio waves with a wavelength higher than 10 meters, so it blocked Arecibo's view of the earliest stages of the universe. Building a telescope on the moon, far from atmospheric interference, would allow astronomers to finally see what they've been missing.

"This is at the stage when the first stars were being formed in the universe, or even before that, when the first matter was formed but the stars hadn't been formed yet," Bandyopadhyay said.

Studying the early universe could help scientists understand the origins of dark matter, which outweighs visible matter six to one.

"Above-10-meter wavelengths, we really do not know what the universe looks like," Bandyopadhyay said. "We don't know what we're going to discover in those wavelengths."

The lunar telescope isn't a NASA mission, but the agency wants to know more

sls space launch system nasa
An artist's rendering of the Space Launch System, NASA's next moon rocket, lifting off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Bandyopadhyay's project is one of six that recently won similar sums from the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC), which awards funding to help researchers flesh out futuristic ideas like this. These "phase II" grants allow researchers to continue studying their early-stage concepts over the next two years.

In addition to the LCRT, NASA's list of concepts includes fungus-based space habitats and a swarm of kite-like spacecraft that would explore Venus' clouds.

"All projects are still in the early stages of development, with most requiring a decade or more of technology maturation. They are not considered official NASA missions," NASA said in a statement.

Like the other projects, Bandyopadhyay's team previously got a $125,000 NASA grant to investigate the telescope project's feasibility.

He's hopeful that the agency will one day take the LCRT on as an official mission.

No humans required: Robots could build the telescope

duaxel rover climbing robot
A DuAxel rover participates in field tests in the Mojave Desert.

The LCRT team has already picked out a few craters on the moon's far side that would be big enough for the telescope dish, each about 3 to 5 kilometers (2 to 3 miles) wide. Now they have to figure out how to get the wire-mesh structure into one of those craters.

One potential plan is to land two enormous landers on the edge of the chosen crater - one carrying the mesh and the other carrying 20 crater-climbing DuAxel rovers. The rovers from that second lander would lay out a series of guiding wires on which the first lander would roll out the telescope's mesh net.

Bandyopadhyay's team estimates that DuAxel bots could get the job done autonomously in just 10 days, well before the sun would set on that side of the moon for its 15-day night.

the moon surface
The moon as viewed by NASA's Mariner 10 probe in 1973.

A second option is to use harpoons to deploy the mesh, though that would take about five months, and the robotic equipment would have to survive long lunar nights. The plus side, however, is that Bandyopadhyay estimates this method would be several billion dollars cheaper.

In their first phase of research, Bandyopadhyay's team picked out a few moon craters that could host their telescope and plotted out the ideas for climbing robots and harpoons. They also laid out the LCRT's scientific objective: gathering signals from the "Dark Ages" of the early universe and filtering out the cosmic radio noise of our Milky Way.

Now, with their new NASA funding, the group must pick the right materials for the science they want to do.

"In the current phase, our most challenging thing is actually designing a mesh that satisfies multiple different constraints," Bandyopadhyay said. Those constraints include making a mesh base for the telescope that would be lightweight enough to launch aboard a rocket. The mesh would simultaneously have to be flexible enough to be deployed on the moon, durable enough to survive dramatic temperature changes there, and still able to conduct radio astronomy.

The team will also do more research into the ways to build this telescope, conduct some risk analyses, and lay out a work plan.

Bandyopadhyay hopes his team will come out of this next phase of research with a cost estimate and a solid pitch for a future NASA mission.

"If this mission does get funded through the next stages, I would be very surprised if LCRT was successfully deployed on the moon before I retire. And I'm a very young scientist," Bandyopadhyay said. "Usually things in space of this magnitude really take time. So, yeah, I'm looking forward to the journey, and this will be a journey of a lifetime."

Read the original article on Business Insider

NASA’s InSight lander has detected more than 500 Mars quakes, but the big ones are mysteriously missing

InSight mars lander
An artist's illustration of the InSight lander on Mars, with its "mole" burrowed deep in the soil.

NASA's InSight lander has observed more than 500 Mars quakes since it landed on the red planet in 2018. But there's a glaring hole in its catalogue: The lander has yet to detect any big rumblings.

"We would have expected a few magnitude 4 events, and maybe even a magnitude 5 at this point, given the number of smaller quakes," Bruce Banerdt, the principal investigator for InSight, told Insider.

Instead, most of the quakes have been so quiet that the average Californian wouldn't even notice them. The four biggest Mars quakes InSight's seismometer has felt ranged in magnitude from 3.1 to 3.6.

So Mars seismologists are beginning to scratch their heads. Either the InSight team has just gotten unlucky, or Mars can't produce big quakes at all. If it's the latter, Banerdt said, "we don't really know what that means yet."

The reason scientists are so interested in Mars' movement is that measuring quakes can reveal what the interior of the planet looks like. So far, Insight's readings have indicated that Mars may have Earth-like layers deep below its crust, which are wrapped in a moon-like outer shell that's been battered by asteroids.

insight lander seismometer mars
The InSight lander's seismometer, as photographed by its camera on September 23, 2020.

But really big quakes would help scientists see deep into the Martian core, which could yield clues about how the planet was born and how it has evolved over time. A better understanding of Mars' insides could be crucial in our efforts to find other worlds that might host life.

"By looking at Mars' core and looking at Mars' crust, and understanding that these haven't changed very much in the last 4.5 billion years, we can get a glimpse into what the Earth might have looked like very early on," Banerdt said. "Mars is helping us to understand just how rocky planets form and how they evolve in general."

Banerdt and his team hope to figure out why they're not seeing big quakes on Mars - either so they'll know how to better look for them in a future mission, or so they can pinpoint what about the Martian interior makes major quakes so scarce.

Mars quakes hint at an Earth-like planet with a moon-like crust

marsquake artist's concept
A 2019 artist's concept of how seismic waves from a Mars quake might move through different layers of the Martian interior.

Listening for a planet's quakes is like doing a CAT scan. When doctors do that kind of scan, a machine sends X-rays through your body, then analyzes how the waves come back at different times and in different directions. That enables them to "piece together the 3D geometry of what's going on inside your body," Banerdt said.

With InSight, he continued, "we're doing the same thing with a planet, using Mars quakes as our 'radiation waves,' and the seismometer is the detector."

Scientists used to think that Mars must have a crust like Earth's, which has been smoothed out by geologic activity like the movement of tectonic plates and the bubbling of molten magma from below. But InSight's seismometer has painted a more nuanced picture.

"It's somewhere between the moon and the Earth in the way it transmits seismic waves," Banerdt said.

On the moon, the crust has been broken up because of asteroid impacts, which gives seismic waves more cracks and surfaces to bounce off. It's as if they're doing a "drunken walk," Banerdt said, and that leads moon quakes to last for hours.

moon astronauts apollo lunar roving vehicle
Apollo astronauts installed seismometers on the moon.

On Earth, seismic waves don't reverberate that much, so they weaken quickly. Moisture in our planet's crust also allows it to absorb some of their energy. As a result, earthquakes usually last just a few seconds, though really big ones can last minutes.

Mars quakes, meanwhile, generally seem to last about 10 to 40 minutes.

The first few hundred tremblings InSight picked up on Mars behaved similarly to those on the moon. But because they were so small, they only enabled scientists to analyze the makeup of the upper layer of the crust. The handful of larger quakes - which gave the InSight team a peek at deeper layers - have acted more like earthquakes.

"I think maybe Mars has an outer layer which is rather lunar-like," Banerdt said. "It's quite broken up by impacts. But deeper into the planet, into the mantle, it appears like it might be more Earth-like."

The mystery of the missing Big One

mars crater
A dramatic, fresh impact crater dominates this image taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on November 19, 2013.

InSight's Mars quakes follow a similar pattern to earthquakes: The higher the magnitude, the rarer the quake.

"You get fewer and fewer quakes as as you get larger and larger numbers, and it follows a sort of an exponential law," Banerdt said.

So far, the tail end of that exponential graph is missing. It could just be a quiet period on Mars - planets can have spells with lots of seismic activity and dry periods with no big quakes. But Banerdt suspects that InSight's data points to a larger trend.

"It looks like there are fewer large quakes on Mars, relative to the number of small quakes, than we would expect. It's a little bit puzzling," he said. "We're still trying to figure out what explanations for that could be."

It's possible that NASA just didn't pick a good spot to hunt for big quakes. On Earth, there are plenty of areas that never see major earthquakes. Or maybe Mars just never shakes that much.

"It could be also related to the gravity, it could be related to the thickness of the brittle layer, it could be related to a lot of things. But right now, we really don't have a handle on that," Banerdt said. "It's an ongoing area of research."

InSight is about to hibernate through 'optimum' quake time

insight mars lander red dust solar panels
The InSight lander's camera captured an image of one of its solar panels covered in dust on February 14, 2021.

The longer InSight waits and listens, the more likely it is to catch a big quake. Unfortunately, the lander is about to take a weeks-long break during peak quake-listening time.

That's because the Elysium Planitia, where InSight landed, has surprised NASA with its lack of wind. There is some wind - enough to drown out the seismic noise of some faraway quakes. But it's not enough to keep red Martian dust off of InSight's solar panels.

Now, the Martian winter is setting in and a thick layer of dust is taxing the robot's energy production. So NASA has decided to put InSight into hibernation. In February, the lander began incrementally shutting off its scientific instruments, conserving power to keep itself warm.

In June, NASA expects to shut down InSight's scientific operations entirely until Mars swings back toward the sun in July.

The seismometer is still running, but Banerdt expects to shut it down in a month or so. That will be in the middle of the "optimum" time for detecting Mars quakes, he said, since winds die down in the depths of winter. Reduced windiness allows the seismometer to pick up distant quakes with less interference.

"We're hoping to keep the seismometer going as long as we can, then start it up again - you know, after we pass this low-power time - turn it on as quickly as we can," Banerdt said. "But we will probably be missing some things in between."

If InSight survives its power shortage, the seismometer could keep listening for quakes into 2022.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Watch NASA attempt to fly its Ingenuity helicopter on Mars for the first time on Wednesday

mars helicopter ingenuity nasa
An artist's concept of NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter flying.

NASA is about to fly its Mars helicopter for the first time. The feat could revolutionize spaceflight.

The helicopter, called Ingenuity, traveled nearly 300 million miles to the red planet tucked inside the belly of the Perseverance rover. Now it's sitting in an airfield in Mars' Jezero Crater, where it's set to take the first controlled powered flight ever conducted on another planet early on Wednesday.

You can watch NASA attempt this feat via a livestream from mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California (it's embedded below).

NASA Perseverance
Perseverance took a selfie with Ingenuity on April 6.

The flight was originally scheduled for early Monday, but NASA delayed it after a crucial blade-spin test ended abruptly on Friday. For the test, Ingenuity was supposed to spin its carbon-fiber blades at full speed while on the ground. The two pairs of blades must spin in opposite directions at about 2,500 revolutions per minute - about eight times as fast as a passenger helicopter on Earth - in order to lift the 4-pound drone. That's necessary because Martian air has just 1% the density of Earth's atmosphere.

It's not yet clear what caused the helicopter's software to cut the test short, but Ingenuity will need to redo the full-speed spin before it can fly. If the redo goes well, Ingenuity will conduct its entire flight autonomously as early as Wednesday.

mars helicopter ingenuity nasa gif

On flight day, the rapid rotor spinning should lift Ingenuity about 10 feet off the ground, hover there, then gently lower it back down. If all goes well, Ingenuity will attempt up to four more airborne escapades over the course of 30 days. Each of those flights would be increasingly difficult, with the drone venturing higher and farther each time.

Because it takes at least eight minutes for a signal from Mars to travel to Earth, and vice versa, the engineers and technicians who run Ingenuity can only bite their nails and wait for the signal that the helicopter has flown and landed on Wednesday.

"I'm sure we're all going to be pretty on edge," Josh Ravich, the mechanical lead for the Ingenuity team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Insider. "Definitely nervous. I mean, it's after years and years of work, you know, kind of waiting for that little one moment to come back."

Watch NASA fly its Mars helicopter live

Ingenuity is a technology demonstration meant to test NASA's rotorcraft technology on another planet. So beyond flying and capturing photos and video from the air, it won't conduct any science. But Ingenuity could pave the way for future extraterrestrial helicopters that would do reconnaissance for rovers and astronauts, study the surface of Mars or other planets from the air, and fly through canyons and cliffs that may be inaccessible to rovers.

The NASA TV livestream below will show the agency's Space Flight Operations Facility throughout the flight attempt. That's where engineers like Ravich will be waiting anxiously to hear from the helicopter.

"By its nature, it's going to have a little bit more risk than a normal mission," Ravich said. "There's a lot of things that could go wrong."

You won't be able to watch the flight in real time - NASA can't livestream from another planet - but video of and from the flight will likely become available soon afterward. The helicopter is set to record the ground below it using two cameras on its belly (one in black and white for navigation and one in color). Perseverance, meanwhile, is expected to record the flight from a nearby overlook.

It's not yet known how long it will take to get that video back to Earth and for NASA to publish it. Perseverance beamed back complete video footage of its landing within three days.

This could be the first of 5 flights

ingenuity helicopter mars
NASA's Ingenuity helicopter, photographed on Mars by the Perseverance rover on April 4.

If everything goes as NASA hopes, Ingenuity's fifth and final flight will carry the helicopter over 980 feet (300 meters) of Martian ground.

"Each one of those is probably going to be, you know, a pretty tense and exciting experience," Ravich said.

But even if Ingenuity only completes this first 10-foot hover, that will be a major achievement.

"It will be truly a Wright brothers moment but on another planet," MiMi Aung, the project manager for the helicopter team, said in a briefing before the rover landed. "Every step going forward will be first of a kind."

This post has been updated with new information. It was originally published on Friday, April 9, 2021.

Read the original article on Business Insider

NASA delays Mars helicopter flight after a crucial rotor-blade-spinning test ended abruptly

mars ingenuity helicopter rotor blades spin
The Perseverance rover captured the Ingenuity helicopter before (left) and after (right) spinning its rotor blades at low speed.

NASA has delayed the first flight of its Ingenuity Mars helicopter after a crucial test-spin of the drone's rotor blades abruptly stopped.

This was the last major test to make sure the helicopter would be ready for its first flight, which was originally scheduled for early Monday. Now NASA has delayed the historic liftoff - which would mark the first powered, controlled flight on another planet - to Wednesday.

For the test on Friday, Ingenuity was supposed to spin its blades at full speed while on the ground. The two pairs of blades should have spun in opposite directions at more than 2,500 rotations per minute - about eight times faster than an Earth helicopter. On flight day, they'll need that speed to lift the 4-pound drone into the thin Martian atmosphere. That air has just 1% the density of Earth's atmosphere, making Ingenuity's task the equivalent of flying three times higher than the peak of Mount Everest.

mars helicopter ingenuity nasa
An artist's concept of NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter flying through the Martian skies.

But that test spin was abruptly halted when a "watchdog" timer expired, NASA announced on Saturday. This timer ended the command sequence that was instructing Ingenuity to conduct each step of the test. The stop happened as the command sequence was trying to transition the helicopter's flight computer from "pre-flight" to "flight" mode.

"The watchdog timer oversees the command sequence and alerts the system to any potential issues. It helps the system stay safe by not proceeding if an issue is observed and worked as planned," NASA's announcement said.

It's not yet clear what the issue was, but NASA said the helicopter is "safe and healthy" and fully communicating with mission controllers on Earth. The agency's helicopter team is reviewing data from the test to diagnose the issue. NASA will have to reattempt the full-speed spin before Ingenuity can fly.

Ingenuity could fly up to 5 times on Mars

NASA Perseverance

Ingenuity traveled nearly 300 million miles to Mars tucked inside the belly of the Perseverance rover. It has successfully unfolded itself from its underbelly hideaway, dropped to the ground, survived frigid Martian nights on its own, charged up with solar energy, and conducted a series of system checks.

All the checkouts and tests had gone well until Friday's full-speed spin.

"So far so good, knock on wood," MiMi Aung, the project manager for Ingenuity, said in a briefing before that final test on Friday.

For its first flight, Ingenuity is supposed to lift itself about 10 feet into the air, hover, then lower itself safely back to the ground. If that goes well, Ingenuity could attempt up to four more increasingly difficult flights.

mars helicopter ingenuity nasa gif

"We're all kind of a little bit nervous and excited at the same time," Thomas Zurbuchen, the agency's associate administrator for science, told Insider on Friday. "We're all ready, but we'll all feel better when it's done - and successful."

This is a flight experiment, meant to prove that rotorcraft technology can work on Mars. If it succeeds, it could open the door for future space-helicopters to study regions that rovers can't reach - mountains, canyons, and rocky terrains - or even do reconnaissance for future Mars astronauts.

"Suppose that it does, in fact, work. What we will have proven is that we can add an aerial dimension to discovery and exploration on Mars," Zurbuchen said. "That aerial dimension, of course, opens up aspects of science and overall exploration that, frankly, at this moment in time, are only our dreams."

Read the original article on Business Insider

The Ingenuity Mars helicopter’s blades are spinning ahead of its first flight – making the NASA team ‘nervous and excited’

mars ingenuity helicopter rotor blades spin
The Perseverance rover photographed the Ingenuity helicopter before (left) and after (right) it spun its rotor blades.

NASA's Ingenuity helicopter is charging up and spinning its blades in preparation to fly above the Martian surface.

The 4-pound drone is set to lift off early on Monday, rise 10 feet above the dusty red ground of Mars' Jezero Crater, then gently touch back down. The entire flight should last about 40 seconds, but it could forever change the way NASA explores other planets.

Future Mars helicopters could scout out canyons and mountains that rovers can't access, fly in and out of craters, or even do reconnaissance for astronauts.

mimi aung ingenuity helicopter mars perseverance
Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung speaks at a press conference on February 16, 2021.

As for Ingenuity, if its first flight goes well, the rotorcraft will attempt up to four increasingly difficult sojourns into the thin Martian air after that.

"Each world gets only one first flight," MiMi Aung, the project manager for Ingenuity, said in a briefing on Friday. "The Wright brothers achieved the first flight on Earth. Ingenuity is poised to go for being the first on Mars."

The $85 million chopper has completed most of its system checkouts, and its solar panels are absorbing enough energy to power its flight. It spun its blades for the first time on Thursday, though that spin was much slower than it will need to be for flight - 50 rotations per minute instead of 2,500.

"So far so good, knock on wood," Aung said.

Late on Friday, the helicopter is set to test out a full-speed spin.

Meanwhile, the Perseverance rover, which carried Ingenuity to the red planet, has driven to an outlook about 210 feet away. From its perch, the rover is ready to watch and record footage as its helicopter stowaway takes flight.

But nobody is sure Ingenuity will succeed. So as flight day approaches, the engineers behind the helicopter are anticipating the moment of truth when they'll find out. Ingenuity will conduct its entire flight autonomously, and it takes at least 8 minutes for a signal from Mars to travel to Earth, and vice versa. So once the process begins, the Ingenuity team can only bite their nails and wait for the signal of success.

NASA Perseverance
Perseverance took a selfie with Ingenuity on April 6, 2021.

"I'm feeling a lot of emotions," Josh Ravich, who leads Ingenuity's mechanics teams, told Insider. "A lot of the team, myself included, are very hesitant to celebrate prematurely. So even as we're making really exciting milestones, getting prepared for first flight, we're still holding our enthusiasm until that flight happens."

The feeling extends to NASA's leaders, too.

"We're all kind of a little bit nervous and excited at the same time," Thomas Zurbuchen, the agency's associate administrator for science, told Insider. "We're all ready, but we'll all feel better when it's done - and successful."

Flying through air thinner than on the top of Mount Everest

mars helicopter ingenuity nasa gif

If the full-speed spin test goes well, NASA expects Ingenuity to fly around 3:30 a.m. ET on Monday. That will be about 12:30 p.m. on Mars' Jezero Crater, when the sun is bright. NASA expects winds to be helicopter-friendly at that time, too.

Even if conditions are perfect, though, flying on Mars is tough. The air there has just 1% the density of Earth's atmosphere, making Ingenuity's task the equivalent of flying three times higher than the peak of Mount Everest. To catch enough lift with so few molecules to push against, the helicopter's two pairs of blades will have to spin in opposite directions at a speed roughly eight times faster than a passenger helicopter on Earth.

"There were some people who doubted we could generate enough lift to fly in that thin Martian atmosphere," Amiee Quon, who tested Ingenuity in a Mars-simulation chamber on Earth, said in the Friday briefing.

It worked in the test chamber, but flying on Mars is a different story.

"There are four possible outcomes. The first is for success. Second, partial success. Third could be insufficient or no data coming back, which means we'll have to take more time to figure out what's happened. Or it could be failure," Aung said.

'High-risk, high-reward'

perseverance rover landing mars nasa mission control celebrates
The Perseverance surface-operations team celebrates the rover's landing from their mission-control room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, February 18, 2021.

Because Ingenuity is a demonstration of technology that's never been used on Mars before, it's "high-risk, high-reward," according to Zurbuchen.

"There's a lot of a lot of things that could certainly go wrong, I guess, besides crashing or not working at all. You can imagine 1,000 ways that either of those things could happen," Ravich said.

The worst-case scenario, he added, is that Ingenuity doesn't get off the ground at all. Even if it flies a little bit and crashes, the team could potentially salvage data from the robot and learn lessons for future space helicopters.

If the rotorcraft does fly and land smoothly, even just for this first flight, Ingenuity could revolutionize the way NASA investigates other planets.

"Suppose that it does, in fact, work. What we will have proven is that we can add an aerial dimension to discovery and exploration on Mars," Zurbuchen said. "That aerial dimension, of course, opens up aspects of science and overall exploration that, frankly, at this moment in time, are only our dreams."

Read the original article on Business Insider

Astronauts on the space station just flew SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to a new port – a first for the spaceship

crew dragon crew-1 iss port relocation undocking space station
The Crew Dragon Resilience undocks from the forward port of the International Space Station on April 5, 2021.

SpaceX's first full astronaut crew successfully maneuvered its Crew Dragon spaceship to a new port on the International Space Station on Monday. It was the first time the vehicle had attempted the maneuver.

Called a port relocation, the process required the spaceship to back away from the ISS port where it had been since it arrived at the orbiting laboratory in November, then fly to a different, space-facing port, and dock there instead. Russian Soyuz vehicles have conducted port-relocation maneuvers 15 times in the past, but no astronauts had ever done it in a commercial spacecraft before.

The spaceship reshuffling cleared the way for SpaceX's next Crew Dragon capsule to arrive at the ISS. That mission, called Crew-2, is set to launch on April 22, bringing four more astronauts to the space station.

The four astronauts on the mission that's currently in orbit, Crew-1, are set to return to Earth about five days after Crew-2 arrives. In the overlap time, there will be two Crew Dragons attached to the ISS - and a crowded house of 11 people in space.

spacex_dragon_dec_7_1 skitch
A Dragon cargo capsule docks at the ISS on December 7, 2020, alongside a Crew Dragon capsule that carried astronauts three weeks prior.

Now that NASA is commissioning regular astronaut flights from both SpaceX and Russia's Soyuz launch system, the ISS is expected to be more crowded on a regular basis. Future Crew Dragons will likely need to switch ports, too, especially if Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spaceship joins the mix later this year. SpaceX and Boeing both developed their spaceships through NASA's Commercial Crew Program, a competition meant to spur the development of commercial alternatives to Soyuz.

"The space station has become the spaceport we want it to be, with vehicles flying to it and returning science and payloads and doing amazing things on orbit," Kathy Leuders, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said in a March press briefing.

Watch the Crew Dragon switch parking spots

spacex crew1
NASA's SpaceX Crew-1 crew members in the Crew Dragon spacecraft during training. From left to right: NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, and Mike Hopkins, and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi.

In preparation for port relocation, the Crew-1 astronauts - NASA's Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and Japan's Soichi Noguchi - changed into their spacesuits early Monday morning. Spacesuits are required for docking and undocking maneuvers, in case anything goes wrong and the spaceship's cabin is compromised.

SpaceX also had a recovery ship stationed near splashdown sites in the Atlantic Ocean, in case the Crew Dragon had to deorbit and plunge back to Earth.

But everything seemed to go smoothly. The astronauts climbed aboard the Crew Dragon capsule, which they've named "Resilience," checked for air-pressure leaks, then instructed the spaceship to begin the fully automated maneuver. The hooks keeping Resilience attached to the space station's forward port retracted at 6:30 a.m. ET, undocking the spaceship from the ISS. The vehicle then fired its thrusters to back away.

Over the next 30 minutes, while circling the Earth at about 5 miles per second, Resilience moved above the ISS and aligned itself with the station's space-facing zenith port. It docked there at 7:08 a.m. ET.

NASA broadcast the maneuver in the video below. Undocking starts at about 30:45.

NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and her Russian colleagues, Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, also performed their own port relocation on March 19. They moved their Soyuz spaceship from the Earth-facing port of the Russian module on the ISS to its space-facing port. That leaves the former open for the next Soyuz spaceship to bring up three more astronauts on April 9.

Unlike Crew Dragon, however, Soyuz has to be maneuvered manually.

After Crew-1 returns to Earth, an uncrewed Cargo Dragon spaceship carrying new solar panels for the ISS is set to take its place on the zenith port.

Read the original article on Business Insider

NASA’s Mars helicopter survived its first night alone on the red planet after the Perseverance rover set it free

ingenuity helicopter mars
NASA's Ingenuity helicopter, photographed on Mars by the Perseverance rover on April 4, 2021.

NASA's new space helicopter has survived its first night alone on Mars.

After slowly unfolding from its hideaway in Perseverance's belly, the 4-pound robot dropped the last four inches to the ground on Saturday. By weathering freezing temperatures, Ingenuity - as the helicopter is called - has overcome one of the biggest hurdles in NASA's quest to fly the first drone on another planet.

Ingenuity is set to conduct its first Martian flight as early as April 11. If that goes well, the space drone will have a roughly 30-day window to attempt up to five increasingly difficult flights, venturing higher and further each time.

NASA's Perseverance rover, which carried Ingenuity to Mars, will perch nearby and record video. That footage will help NASA collect crucial data about this technological demonstration, since it could pioneer a new method of exploring other planets.

Sitting alone on its Martian airfield, Ingenuity is finally in position for those flights.

Mars ingenuity helicopter nasa perseverance rover
The Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, sitting where the Perseverance rover dropped it, April 5, 2021.

After depositing the helicopter on the ground, the rover backed away, exposing Ingenuity's solar panels so they could soak up sunlight. This also exposed the rotocraft to frigid Martian nights. In Jezero Crater, the ancient lake basin where Perseverance landed, nighttime temperatures can plunge as low as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

"This is the first time that Ingenuity has been on its own on the surface of Mars," MiMi Aung, NASA's project manager for the helicopter, said in a press release. "But we now have confirmation that we have the right insulation, the right heaters, and enough energy in its battery to survive the cold night, which is a big win for the team. We're excited to continue to prepare Ingenuity for its first flight test."

Ingenuity's otherworldly flight could be the first of many

mars helicopter ingenuity nasa
An artist's concept of NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter flying through the Martian skies.

NASA spent $85 million developing Ingenuity. The rotocraft has already proven tough enough to survive the nearly 300-million-mile journey to Mars and weather the planet's extreme temperatures. But it also has to fly.

Mars has an incredibly thin atmosphere; it's just 1% of the density of Earth's. To catch enough air, the helicopter's four carbon-fiber blades have to spin in opposite directions at about 2,400 revolutions per minute - about eight times as fast as a passenger helicopter on Earth.

Ingenuity's first flight will just test whether the helicopter can successfully get a few feet off the ground, hover for about 30 seconds, and then touch back down. From there, each test will get more difficult, culminating in a final flight that could carry the helicopter over 980 feet (300 meters) of Martian ground.

mars helicopter ingenuity flight nasa gif
An animation of NASA's Ingenuity helicopter exploring the Martian surface.

Ingenuity won't conduct any further science on Mars - it's meant as a technology demonstration - but future space helicopters could open new scientific frontiers on other planets.

"We use drones and helicopters here on Earth for all sorts of things that they're more suitable for than land-based vehicles," Håvard Grip, NASA's chief pilot for Ingenuity, said in a March press briefing.

On other planets, the thinking goes, similar aerial explorers could accomplish tasks that rovers can't.

"That could be for reconnaissance purposes - taking pictures to scout out areas, potential science targets for future rovers, or even future astronauts on Mars," Grip said. "Or it could be carrying its own science instruments into areas where you can't get with a land-based vehicle."

Once Ingenuity's test flights are over, Perseverance is expected to drive toward the cliffs of an ancient river delta for its own revolutionary science mission: a search for fossils of ancient alien microbes on Mars.

Read the original article on Business Insider

An astronomer’s colorful animation shows how Saturn’s disappearing rings act like a ‘mini solar system’

saturn rings radio
Saturn's rings, imaged based on radio data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Green indicates regions with particles smaller than 5 centimeters; purple is where no particles are that small. The white area is so dense that it blocked radio signals.
  • Saturn's seven icy rings each spin at their own speed, behaving like a "mini solar system."
  • Planetary scientist James O'Donoghue made a beautifully simple animation to show how it works.
  • But the rings are temporary: Saturn is slowly swallowing them, according to O'Donoghue's research.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

If star-hopping aliens ever visited our solar system, Saturn is probably the planet they'd remember.

The seven giant rings circling its equator make Saturn the most distinct planet orbiting the sun. It may not be obvious in images of the hula-hoop planet, but the ice and rock chunks that make up those rings are circling Saturn at rates nearly 70 times the speed of sound. What's more, each ring is moving at its own pace.

"In a way, the ring system is like a mini solar system," James O'Donoghue, a planetary scientist at Japan's space agency, JAXA, told Insider. "Objects close to Saturn orbit faster otherwise they would fall in, while objects far away can afford to go slower. This is the same for planets."

In his free time, O'Donoghue makes animations about physics and the solar system. Some of his others have demonstrated that there's no "dark side" of the moon, the true center of the solar system isn't the sun, and Earth has two types of day.

When he put his skills to work to depict Saturn's rings, O'Donoghue created an animation (below) that shows how the each ring moves through its own motions in a beautiful, circular dance.

In the animation, the line labeled "synchronous orbit" is synced up with the spin of Saturn itself, so it shows which parts of the rings you would see over time if you stood at that spot on the planet.

Saturn's slowest, outermost ring spins at about 37,000 mph (16.4 kilometers per second) - slower than the rotation of Saturn itself. The innermost chunks of ice and rock shoot through space at about 52,000 mph (23.2 kilometers per second).

saturn rings illustration
An illustration of Saturn's rings up close.

Up close, Saturn's rings aren't as chaotic as their speeds might make them seem. According to O'Donoghue, grains of ice on neighboring tracks are only moving at a few centimeters per minute relative to each other.

"That speed is like walking one step every 30 minutes, or similar to rush hour traffic," he said on Twitter. "So collisions aren't very dramatic."

Saturn is slowly swallowing its rings

In addition to being incredibly fast-moving, Saturn's rings are very long and thin. If you unfurled them - as O'Donoghue did in the image below - all the planets would fit comfortably within their length.

saturn rings solar system o'donoghue

But in total, the rings have just 1/5,000th the mass of our moon.

"In other words, our moon could be used to make 5,000 Saturn ring systems," O'Donoghue told Insider. "This highlights how extremely thin and fragile the rings of Saturn are."

This fragility is a subject of O'Donoghue's scientific research. In studying Saturn's upper atmosphere, he and his colleagues found that the rings are slowly disappearing. Thousands of kilograms of ring material rain onto the planet every second. At that rate, the rings shouldn't last more than 300 million years in their current "full" form, he said.

"Saturn's ring system is not exactly stable, appearing to be more like a temporary debris field of some ancient moon or comet which got too close and broke apart, rather than a permanent feature," O'Donoghue added. "We can count ourselves lucky we live in a time when Saturn's rings have such an enormous presence in the solar system."

Read the original article on Business Insider