NASA Helicopter Has Been Zipping About On Mars, Paving The Way For Drone Exploration NASA's Ingenuity helicopter has spent the summer circling around on Mars. Its success has been called an "extra terrestrial Wright Brother's moment" and has opened the door to otherworldly aviation.

NASA Helicopter Has Been Zipping About On Mars, Paving The Way For Drone Exploration

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Big news from Mars this weekend. A small helicopter zipped around its surface, and as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, it's exceeding all expectations.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The helicopter was carried to Mars on the much-larger Perseverence rover. So far, the rover's rolled a little over a mile, but the helicopter has gone further. It's whizzing ahead.

TEDDY TZANETOS: It is not a race, absolutely not a race.

BRUMFIEL: Teddy Tzanetos of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is the operations lead for the Mars helicopter, which is called Ingenuity. He's also an avid drone pilot.

TZANETOS: I love going out to a park and flying fixed-wing rotorcraft, helicopters, quads.

BRUMFIEL: But flying on Mars, Tzanetos will tell you, is a completely different ballgame. There are two big problems. First, the atmosphere is only about 1% of the atmosphere on Earth.

TZANETOS: To be able to fly in 1% of Earth's density, you need a vehicle that's very, very light.

BRUMFIEL: Second, it takes many minutes for a signal from a remote control on earth to reach a drone on Mars, so Ingenuity can't be remote controlled. It has to fly itself.

TZANETOS: Everything needs to be autonomous. The aircraft needs to be able to control itself, respond to wind gusts, respond to changes in how the aircraft itself is performing.

BRUMFIEL: And that's a big part of why nobody has flown around on Mars before - because in the past, the computers and cameras a drone would need for autopilot just weighed too much. Ingenuity has solved that problem, though, using some super-lightweight microchips.

TZANETOS: We are using some of the most powerful computers we've ever sent out into space. And that just happens to be a cellphone processor from a couple of generations back.

BRUMFIEL: That's right. Cellphone processors like the ones in your pocket right now are flying a drone on Mars, and it is flying. In August Ingenuity flitted across a group of sand dunes in an area of Mars known as Seitah. It was terrain the Perseverence rover couldn't drive through.

TZANETOS: They've got a very long distance to get around the bottom of Seitah. And they're coming on their way now north.

BRUMFIEL: I know you said it isn't a race, but you won. You got there first, didn't you?

TZANETOS: (Laughter) No, no, there's not a race. So, I mean, we got - you know, we are the forward scout.

BRUMFIEL: Scouting the ground for Perseverance is a big part of Ingenuity's mission. That's in part because the little helicopter's just a test vehicle. It's not designed for scientific research. Tzanetos thinks that will change in the future, though. Drones will become valuable explorers.

TZANETOS: A rotorcraft can fly up to a cliffside wall and take images of a cliff. We can dive into caves. Having that completely brand-new perspective is something that we think is going to blow the doors open on exploration of Mars.

BRUMFIEL: And it's not just Mars. NASA's working on a giant drone to explore Saturn's moon Titan. The thing is the size of a small car. And if you're wondering how that's going to work, well, Elizabeth Turtle, the principal investigator of the Titan mission, says it turns out the moon is a perfect place to fly. It's got a thick atmosphere and not a lot of gravity.

ELIZABETH TURTLE: So physically, it's actually easier to fly on Titan than it is on Earth.

BRUMFIEL: Turtle and the rest of her team are closely watching Ingenuity's progress. It's a chance for them to learn about flying on other worlds. But also, she says, it's cool.

TURTLE: It's just really exciting, you know, to see a vehicle flying on another planet.

BRUMFIEL: Although Ingenuity isn't flying right this second, it's sitting on the surface of Mars, waiting for the Perseverence rover to catch up. But, again, it's not a race.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.


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