NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter drone has now complete four of its five initial flights on Mars, and in doing so, NASA has announced the programme has moved from demonstration flights to an extended “operational” flight regime covering at least a further 30 days. In particular, Ingenuity will be used to test how future aerial drones might be used in support of ground-based operations, with Ingenuity working in partnership with Perseverance, the Mars 2020 rover, as the latter commences the operational phase of its own science mission.
For Ingenuity to now enter a new operational demonstration phase, our team has been extremely happy and proud. It’s like Ingenuity is graduating from the test demo phase to, now, the new demo phase, where we can show how rotorcraft can be used.
– MiMi Aung, Ingenuity Project Manager
During its third flight, which occurred on Sunday, April 25th (mission Sol 64) Ingenuity flew a total of 100 metres, again at an altitude of around 5 metres, lifting-of from “Wright Brothers Field” to travel 50 metres downrange before hovering briefly and then returning to “Wright Brothers Field” and making a safe landing.
Along the way, the helicopter achieved another first – capturing a shot of Perseverance from the air. When enlarged, the image of the rover was slightly grainy, but the helicopter was moving at speed and was some 85 metres from Perseverance, with the colour camera set to periodically take photos – given the Earth-Mars distance, it simply isn’t possible to aim the camera in real time during a flight.
The helicopter’s 4th flight had been planned for Thursday 29th at 14;12 UTC, but was cancelled when Ingenuity has a further timing issue of the kind that caused a postponement of its pre-flight checks in early April. Whilst adjustments were made to the helicopter’s software to correct the issue, the engineering team noted that there was potential for it to again occur.
However the fact that the issue had been encountered meant the team were prepared for the problem, and 24 hours later, Ingenuity lifted-off to cover a total distance of 266 metres – 133 downrange and 133 back to “Wright Brothers Field”, flying for a total of 117 seconds, – well in excess of the planned maximum flight time of 90 seconds, and reaching a horizontal speed of 13 km/h.
Images from the flight were still being received and processed at the time of writing this article, but it is hoped that Ingenuity may have again caught Perseverance in one the five 13 megapixel shots taken with its sideways-looking colour camera. It is also hoped that the microphones aboard the rover, which were turned on during the flight, may have caught the sounds of Ingenuity flying.
The decision to extend Ingenuity’s mission beyond the initial 30 days came as something of surprise: prior to the 4th flight being delayed, NASA were still talking in terms of the flight regime ending after the initial 30 days.
However, a re-evaluation of Perseverance’s science programme brought about a change of heart. The initial flight extension is for a further 30 days, with further extensions possible if the helicopter can continue to operate in partnership with the rover, rather than the latter being a passive observer. Theoretically, there are no limits to how long Ingenuity might operate: it has no limiting consumables, and the only real threats to its operation being a crash, a mechanical issue or a failure resulting from the thermal stresses imparted by the day / night temperatures extremes.
China launches First Space Station Element
At 03:23 GMT on April 29th, a heavy-lift Long March 5B booster lifted-off from China’s Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on the island of Hainan, carrying the core module of the nation’s long-awaited permanent space station into orbit.
The 22.6 tonne Tianhe-1 (“Harmony of the Heavens”), also known as the Crew Cabin Module, is a 3-section unit designed to provide living quarters for a planned crew of 3 tiakonauts (as Chinese astronauts are called), with the associated life support systems, a power, propulsion facility that will provide power, life support, control and guidance for the entire station, and a docking hub.
Overall, the Tiangong space station is expected to comprise Tianhe-1 and two additional modules, Wentian and Mengtian. The latter will provide a mix of research and science capabilities, together with further navigation avionics, propulsion and orientation control systems. Once launched, they will bring the station to around 60 tonnes in mass, with the option of additional capabilities being provided by Tianzhou resupply vehicles.
Tiangong builds on the experience China gained in operating two (relatively short-lived) orbital laboratories, Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2. Despite its small size when compared to the 460-tonne International Space Station, the Chinese station will have a powerful research capability: fourteen internal experiment racks and more than 50 external docking points for instruments designed to gather data in the space environment, with 100 experiments already earmarked for flight on the station.
The two additional modules will not be launched until 2022. Before then, Tianhe will be visited by a automated Tianzhou resupply vehicle in May 2021. This will be followed in in June 2021 by the first crewed flight to the station. Tianzhou and crewed missions will then continue alternately in September / October 2021 and April / May 2022, before the science modules are launched for automated rendezvous with Tianhe-1 in May or June 2021 and August or September 2022.
Among its duties, the station will help China prepare for its planned crewed missions to the Moon and also co-operate a Hubble-class space telescope China plans to launch in 2024. This will occupy an orbit in a similar inclination to the station, allowing it to be serviced by crews operating from the station.
In the meantime, the booster used to launch Tianhe-1 has caused consternation as China has effectively abandoned the 30 metre long core in low Earth orbit, and it is expected to make an uncontrolled re-entry into Earth’s denser atmosphere some time in the next week. This is a cause for concern as the booster’s orbit carries it over population centres such as New York, Madrid, Beijing and Wellington, New Zealand, and there are elements such as the motors that could survive entry into the atmosphere and strike the ground.
This is not the first time China has taken a cavalier attitude towards large mass orbital debris coming back to Earth: both the Tiangong 1 and Tiangong 2 orbital laboratories were left to make uncontrolled re-entries into the atmosphere, risking potential ground impacts.