This NASA handout illustration obtained Monday shows a descent illustration to Mars, of the spacecraft containing NASA’s Perseverance rover slowing down using the drag generated by its motion in the Martian atmosphere.-AFP

WASHINGTON: More than a century after the first powered flight on Earth, NASA intends to prove it’s possible to replicate the feat on another world. Transported aboard the Mars 2020 spacecraft that arrives at the Red Planet on Thursday, the small Ingenuity helicopter will have several challenges to overcome-the biggest being the rarefied Martian atmosphere, which is just one percent the density of Earth’s.

It might be called a helicopter, but in appearance it’s closer to mini-drones we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in recent years. Weighing just four pounds (1.8 kilograms), its blades are much larger and spin about five times faster — 2,400 revolutions per minute-than would be required to generate the same amount of lift back on Earth. It does however get some assistance from Mars, where the gravity is only a third of that on our home planet.

Ingenuity has four feet, a box-like body, and four carbon-fiber blades arranged in two rotors spinning in opposite directions. It comes with two cameras, computers, and navigation sensors. It’s also equipped with solar cells to recharge its batteries, much of the energy being used for staying warm or cold Martian nights, where temperatures fall to minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius). The helicopter is hitching a ride on the belly of the Perseverance rover, which will drop it to the ground once it has landed then drive away.

90 second flights
Up to five flights of gradual difficulty are planned, over a window of one month, within the first few months of the mission. Ingenuity will fly at altitudes of 10-15 feet (3-5 meters) and travel as far as 160 feet (50 meters) from its starting area and back. Each flight will last up to a minute and half-compared to the 12 seconds the Wright brothers achieved with the first powered, controlled flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903.

Like the Perseverance rover, Ingenuity is too far away from Earth to be operated using a joystick, and is therefore designed to fly autonomously. Its onboard computers will work with its sensors and cameras to keep it on a path programmed by its engineers. But the outcome of these flights will be learned only after they took place.

What’s the goal?
NASA describes Ingenuity’s mission as a “technology demonstration”: a project that seeks to test a new capability together with the astrobiology mission of Perseverance. If it’s successful, however, it “basically opens up a whole new dimension of exploring Mars,” said Bob Balaram, Ingenuity’s chief engineer.

Future models could offer better vantage points not seen by current orbiters or by slow-moving rovers on the ground, allowing the helicopters to scope out terrain for land-based robots or humans. They could even help carry light payloads from one site to another-such as the rock and soil samples Perseverance will be collecting in the next phase of the Mars 2020 mission.

Rover to touch down
After a seven-month journey, NASA’s Perseverance rover prepares to touch down on Mars tomorrow after first negotiating a risky landing procedure that will mark the start of its multi-year search for signs of ancient microbial life. The Mars 2020 mission, which set off late from Florida in late July, includes the largest ever vehicle to be dispatched to the Red Planet.

Built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it weighs a ton, has a robotic arm that’s seven feet (two meters) long, has 19 cameras, and two microphones to record the Martian soundscape. Should it arrive intact, Perseverance will be only the fifth rover to successfully complete the journey since Pathfinder in 1997. All have been American and the last, Curiosity, is still active.

China last week placed its Tianwen-1 spacecraft in orbit around Mars carrying both a lander and a rover, which it is hoped to land in May. At around 3:55pm EST Thursday (2055 GMT), Perseverance will place its six wheels on a landing site described as “spectacular” by Ken Farley, a NASA scientist.

Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer-wide) basin located in the Martian northern hemisphere, had been considered for previous missions, but was considered too difficult to land in until now. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mission control room will have fewer people than normal.

“But assuming we do have confirmation of landing, I don’t think COVID is gonna be able to stop us from jumping up and down and fist pumping,” said Matt Wallace, the mission’s deputy project manager. The first low resolution photos of the surface will arrive quickly. Video footage, including entry into the atmosphere, is expected later.

Lakes and rivers
Scientists believe that around 3.5 billion years ago, the crater was home to a river that flowed into a lake, depositing sediment in a fan-shaped delta. During this period, “Mars was very similar to Earth in several important ways,” said Farley. “It had a substantial atmosphere, it had lakes and rivers on its surface, and it had habitable environments, places where organisms that we know about on earth today could have thrived.”

Producing oxygen
What would these long awaited signs of life look like? “We should not be looking for fossil teeth or fossil bones or fossil leaves,” he said. Rather, it’s hunting for organic molecules and other signs of past microbial life, a discovery that would be “fabulous.” The first months of the mission won’t however be devoted to this primary objective.

Parallel experiments are also planned. NASA notably wants to fly, for the first time, a powered aircraft on another planet. The helicopter, dubbed Ingenuity, must be able to ascend in an atmosphere just one percent the density of Earth’s. – AFP