NASA Wright Brothers’ Moment: Interview with Jaakko Karras

History is in the making! NASA is targeting Sunday, April 11, for the Ingenuity Mars helicopter’s first attempt at powered, controlled flight on another planet.

History is in the making! NASA is targeting Sunday, April 11 (now April 14), for the Ingenuity Mars helicopter’s first attempt at powered, controlled flight on another planet.

NASA's Ingenuity Helicopter
Source: NASA

The small but mighty helicopter arrived on Mars attached to the belly of the Perseverance rover on February 18, 2021. As the first rover to land on the red planet since 2012, the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover is the agency’s most ambitious rover yet. Ingenuity is aiming to pave the way for more ambitious aerial exploration of other planets in the future. The helicopter also carries with it a piece of history from Earth: a piece of the original Wright Brothers plane. 

Robotics Electrical Engineer at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Jaakko Karras told The Wire, “The Ingenuity Mars helicopter is a Wright Brothers’ moment on Mars. This will be the first flight on another planet. It very much parallels the first flight 118 years ago here on Earth.” Harras continued saying, “We are truly honored to get to share this month here at the beginning of the Perseverance mission […] pulling off this historic feat and demonstrating this new capability for space exploration.” 

The Ingenuity helicopter is going to Mars on the Perseverance rover. Ingenuity is a very small spacecraft – about the size of a tissue box – but is mighty. Ingenuity has to spin its blades much faster than at Earth to get enough lift. The Mars atmosphere is just about 1% the density of Earth’s atmosphere. The first test flight involves lifting off, climbing to 10 feet, hovering for 30 seconds and then descending back to the planet’s surface. 

Karras described the foreseen landing as “tense” as “this will be the first of its kind.” He continued saying, “there are a lot of things that have to go right for it to work so we will be watching every single one of those aspects here in the coming days.”

This flight will be the first in a series of test flights that will last up to 31 Earth days. These tests will set the stage for future missions to include advanced robotic flying vehicles, collect high-resolution images from the air and survey sites that are difficult for rovers to reach. The rover will explore Mars in search of signs of ancient life, collect samples of Martian rocks and sediment for future return to Earth, study the planet’s geology and climate and pave the way for human exploration beyond the Moon. 

Mission Manager Keith Comeaux stated in a recent interview that the Perseverance rover “begins our journey to bring samples from Mars back to Earth for scientists to study here.” 

This mission is a way to get to know Mars better than we ever have in the past. The samples taken from the landing site may serve as proof of life on another planet.

Comeaux also explained that Jezero Crater is, “a small crater that was actually on Curiosity’s landing site list but it didn’t make it because it was too dangerous to land there […] because it is a small crater which used to host a lake, and we can clearly see an inlet channel and an exit channel from that crater, as well as a very well preserved river delta […] at the bottom of the crater.”

Retrieving the soil samples from Mars is also an intricate process. A system inside the rover called the ‘sample catching system’ works in concert with the robotic arm and the drill at the end of the robot arm. The drill will take rock and soil samples and transfer them into the sample-caching system which is another robotic arm that will process the sample and seal it inside a titanium tube. 

NASA experts will be watching intently here on Earth as the rover, which they have been working on for centuries, finally carries out its mission.

To watch the take-off this Sunday and stay updated on the mission of the Perseverance rover, check out NASA’s website for exclusive video footage and more interviews with NASA experts. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory has also developed a way for people to experiment with Ingenuity’s design on paper to see what works best. A livestream confirming Ingenuity’s first flight will show on the NASA app, and the agency’s website, and will livestream on multiple agency social media platforms, including the JPL YouTube and Facebook channels.

UPDATE: Based on data from the Ingenuity Mars helicopter that arrived late Friday night, NASA has chosen to reschedule the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter’s first experimental flight no earlier than April 14.

Watch the interview Sydney Murphy ’21 conducted with Jaakko Karras below:

Interview with Sydney Murphy ’21 and Jaakko Karras