winter is coming; NASA’s Mars Helicopter is preparing for the cold season on the Red Planet

The engine, NASA’s self-propelled Martian helicopter, was built for only five flights; But since its first historic flight in April last year, it has flown 28 times and is now preparing for its 29th flight. Depending on the dust level and the perseverance rover’s schedule, the flight may take place later this week. But now the engine is facing a new challenge: it is unclear whether the helicopter will survive the Martian winter, which begins in July.

This is the first engine winter, as a Martian year lasts about two Earth years and the helicopter is located in the Northern Hemisphere. As the winter solstice approaches, the days get shorter and the nights get longer, and the likelihood of dust storms increases. All of this means less sunlight for the solar panels mounted on top of the helicopter’s 120-centimeter twin blades. Dust on solar panels recently marked the end of NASA’s Insight Mars mission, and it is believed that the effect of the cold on electronic equipment played a part in the mission of the Opportunity and Sprite astronauts.

Dave Lowry“We believe the helicopter is viable; “But every extra day is a gift.” Teddy Xanthos“Every day on Mars can be the last day of an engine,” the head of the engine team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently wrote in a NASA blog post.

Last month, an engine was cut off from the ground for a short time due to reduced battery life, most of which is used to heat helicopters. NASA made contact with the engine two days later; But due to the battery level falling below 70% and the temperature constantly falling, the engine will suspend the use of its internal heaters at night to conserve electricity during the four months of winter. Heaters usually start when the temperature drops below minus 20 degrees Celsius. That number dropped to minus 40 degrees last month after a power outage and a power outage. Temperatures on Mars during the winter can drop to minus 80 degrees Celsius at night and increase the risk of damage to the electronics inside the helicopter.

Last Monday, NASA announced the failure of a sensor and delayed flight 29. This forced the space agency to load software packages on the helicopter and rely on another sensor to control the engine navigation algorithms.

NASA Engine Helicopter

Dust storms are among the events with significant consequences. A study published in May by a team at the University of Houston looked at data from NASA sensors over four years on Mars and found that imbalances in solar energy and hot weather in the south increase the likelihood of massive dust storms that could Cover the entire planet. Lemming LeeSpring and summer are known as hurricane seasons, says University of Houston associate professor; But as the Northern Hemisphere approaches the winter solstice, the likelihood of severe storms decreases. However, there is a caveat: this study is for the entire planet and does not cover any specific areas. Conditions can also be different at the craters than at other levels, and the helicopter operates at the craters.

Lee finds it difficult to answer the question of whether more dust storms are on the way. “It is difficult to get a clear picture of the radiation budget at the Yazro crater before we can really measure it,” he said.

As the engine ceases normal flight operations, the team will focus on transferring data such as flight performance reports and high-resolution images from the past eight flights and software upgrades. According to a climate model, NASA expects the solar energy level to return to a level that will allow normal activities to resume this fall. By September or October, if the engine is able to regain the ability to heat its systems at night, it will be able to resume regular flights, look for potential locations to collect rock and soil samples for perseverance, and what scientists believe Explore the ancient river delta at the mouth of the Yazro, explore.

Because the first engine flight was called the Wright Brothers’ moment on other planets, the location of the first flight is now called the Wright Brothers Landing Area. The engine even carries a strip of cloth that was used to cover the wings of the Wright Brothers in 1903. The engine is not an airplane and cannot fly by human hands; Because it takes between 5 and 20 minutes for a radio signal to reach Mars from Earth. As a result, the engine must use fully autonomous flight systems and operate without sensors such as the slider used in ground-based helicopters and some NASA spacecraft. A downhill camera helps the engine determine its position, speed and height.

Upgrading of these systems can be done during the winter shutdown of the helicopter. “If the engine can continue to operate later this year after overcoming the Martian winter, the team is considering several upgrades to the flight system that will increase the system’s power and improve the helicopter’s navigation capabilities,” Lowry wrote in an email to Wired. “They will forgive.”

For example, Lowry says NASA will test its automated hazard avoidance system in known areas. Conditions for early helicopter flights to Mars were relatively safe, but as the engine tries to land in areas with more potential obstacles, the use of an active artificial intelligence avoidance system is on the rise. Lowry says the systems were built in conjunction with the engine’s initial flight system; But not as part of the 2020 version of Cape Canaveral.

Last month, researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which helped build automated flight systems for the Martian helicopter, shared advances in artificial intelligence to predict the best place to land in an unknown area in an emergency. These types of emergency landing systems will be used in future NASA missions, such as Dragonfly, the 2027 mission to send a quadcopter to Saturn, Saturn.

The Titanic drone, which will reach the moon in 2035, will fly millions of kilometers away from Earth like an engine and must operate without human help. Unlike the engine installed under Perseverance, the Dragonfly will fly just over an hour after reaching Titan. The helicopter detaches from its parachute and rear shell when it reaches its destination to fly through the air to begin its two-year life-search mission relying on nuclear energy.

Three-dimensional design of NASA Dragonfly Quadcopter

Three-dimensional design of NASA Dragonfly Quadcopter.

Lessons learned from the engine may also help plan future missions to Mars. NASA’s Ames Research Center and its propulsion laboratory began working on a second-generation helicopter two years before the engine arrived on the Red Planet. Lowry compares the engineer to Sojorner, the first astronaut to be sent to Mars in 1997. Since then, almost every surface mission to Mars has carried an astronaut. Lowry says NASA hopes that a similar process will happen to the Engine and that aerial reconnaissance will become a standard part of the mission.

NASA’s ROAMX project is designing improvements to be included in the next helicopter; Such as changes in the blades that reduce drag force and can enable the helicopter to carry scientific cargo weighing approximately 900 grams over a distance of about 6.4 km. Last year in a presentation on upcoming flights to Mars, Haley Cummings, The senior NASA researcher said that the modifications discovered for the blades in the ROAMX project will be added to the “Mars Scientific Helicopter”; A 30 kg hexacopter with six blades that can continue to operate despite losing one blade. This concept drone was first introduced in a white paper in early 2021.

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Experimental aircraft for Mars have been under construction for more than two decades. They include lampshades in the form of lampshades, hordes of small drones, gliders launched with a balloon, and machines with tilted blades that change positions between flight, such as a helicopter or an airplane. Future concept designs may explore areas that astronauts will not be able to access, and may eventually carry tools and equipment for Martians.

Scientists at the Ames Research Center are thinking of automated base stations and small cage-shaped hangars to protect flying machines from cold and dust and extend their lifespan for years. Extending the life of drones can extend the use of these devices beyond a single mission, allowing them to become part of a network of large and small machines that can perform tasks such as discovering lava corridors, volcanoes or ice caps. The development of fully automatic flight modes can also be used for commercial drones or ground-based flight systems. Today, UAVs typically use GPS and back-home operation in emergencies or power outages.

Livery believes that the most important engine mission took place on the first flight in April 1400. The 39-second flight proved that humans could apply the principles of aerodynamics to controlled flight to other planets. “Every flight that has been made since then, and all the data that we collect with each successive flight, helps us to refine this knowledge a lot,” says Lowry.

At best, the first four flights did not travel more than a few tens of meters, and each lasted about a minute. On the fifth flight, the engine dared to fly more than 120 meters. The helicopter then began a mission to help explore the geology of Mars and search for possible life forms. At the request of the scientific team of the perseverance rover, an engine took high-resolution images of the cliffs of the Forton ridge at the bottom of the crater, which is thought to be of volcanic origin. The engine also flew over part of the Sita area, providing images and information that Laurie said would not have been possible without a helicopter, according to Laurie.

In April, the engine flew at a speed of 19.3 km / h over a distance of more than 700 meters. The flight, which lasted more than two minutes, became the longest and fastest flight to other planets. Late that month, an engineer was able to photograph a parachute and a back shell used to bring perseverance to the surface of a rover. NASA wants to use these images to ensure safer landings of future spacecraft.

Lowry says the first winter of the engine will be a challenge the team never expected to face; But now that they have shown that helicopter flight to Mars is possible, there is the potential for future aircraft to become a key tool in future missions to explore other celestial bodies. “We have not yet decided exactly what the next aircraft will be;” “But the only thing I can be sure of is that there will be the next aircraft.”

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