Last week, a group of scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena made mankind's first powered flight on another planet — 183 million miles away. It involved a four-pound helicopter called Ingenuity that arrived on Mars, attached to the belly of the Perseverance rover. Since that initial flight, the JPL team has successfully flown Ingenuity multiple times.
Mimi Aung, project manager for the Ingenuity mission, talks to KCRW about what the tiny Martian chopper has accomplished and what's ahead.
KCRW: Congratulations on Ingenuity’s successful flights. They are the culmination of how many years of work for you?
Mimi Aung: “Over six years, coming on seven for a lot of us, and some coming up on eight.”
What was going through your mind when you got confirmation that Ingenuity completed its first flight on Mars?
“Right before the data comes back, you really are like, ‘We know it should work, we've done all the preliminary tests, it should.’ But there is still, ‘What is there unknown?’ … You don't know until the moment the data comes.
When I saw that altimeter plot that says, ‘There it was on the surface, climb straight up and sail stably for 30 seconds, hover there,’ and the altimeter data showed that it came back to the original altitude … that data plot is extremely important. That's when you say, ‘We've done it, and it really is flying exactly the way we thought it would.’ So it was just an incredible moment.”
Can you talk about the capabilities of the copter? We've seen it go up and down. And now it's doing sideways motions. What else is coming?
“Remember, Ingenuity grew up on Earth in a simulated Mars environment, in our 25-foot space simulator chamber here at JPL. Having done all our tests and characterization flights and all the experiments in a chamber, large as it is, the longest lateral flight it's been able to fly on Earth in a simulated environment is half a meter to the side and back. But in Mars environment, an infinitely large chamber, Ingenuity is going to get to fly tens of meters.
I am super excited because the vehicle is finally now going to be flying to the extent of the distances that it's designed for.”
Ingenuity is carrying a special piece of cargo. It's a small bit of the Wright brothers’ flyer. Why did you decide to include that?
“The Wright brothers have been a role model for our team. Wright brothers took flying humans on a plane from a question of feasibility. … We received the same questions, right? Can you really make it happen because there is so little atmosphere at [sic] Mars?’ So there's a lot of parallelism with the Wright brothers — took from a concept, question of feasibility, all the way to truly doing it.”
Is it surreal to you that a little piece of the Wright flyer is now on Mars? That was in the very early days of the 1900s. And here we are in the early days of the 21st century, and we are flying on Mars.
“Absolutely that's been … the sentimental side of doing this. It's the biggest honor we can imagine. We got to this point of being ready to fly. And then there was an extraordinary realization when you go, ‘Not only do we get the honor to take the Wright materials to Mars, we are at the cusp of letting that Wright material fly for the first time, just like the Wright brothers did on earth.’ We were going to have this honor to lift this material from the surface of another planet into the Martian atmosphere.”
Ingenuity is now pioneering flight on Mars. What ramifications is that going to have for future missions to the Red Planet?
“Astronauts roaming the surface of Mars in the future will definitely benefit from Ingenuity. For one thing, the ability to fly fast and go out kilometers in minutes, in an aerial dimension, will provide astronauts with a way to get scouting information before the astronauts make kilometers of traverse.
Same thing for rovers on the surface. A helicopter, rotorcraft flying would be complementary because you can have the scouting function for the rover. So it’s definitely going to open up where we can reach on the planet.”