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American and Chinese missions advance in Mars’ exploration

publicado a la‎(s)‎ 25 may 2021, 13:24 por Plataforma Sites Dgac
The mysteries of Mars appear to be closer to unraveling as missions from different countries unfold on the Red Planet, led by the United States and China.
The small Ingenuity helicopter on Mars' surface.

The JPL team in charge of Ingenuity, led by MiMi Aung, celebrates after receiving images and data after the first successful flight of the helicopter on the Martian atmosphere.

The Chinese Space Agency's Zhurong robotic rover on the landing platform and before beginning its exploration on Mars' surface.
During the second half of April 2021, NASA scored a new milestone in space exploration when the small Ingenuity helicopter successfully made its maiden flight on Mars, a huge technological achievement in human exploration of outer space, while China became the second country in the world to operate a vehicle on the planet when the Zhurong rover was deployed and began to move across its surface. 


At 6:46 on Monday, April 19, Chilean time, the Ingenuity helicopter rose three meters above the Martian surface during a test flight of 39 seconds, causing a burst of joy among scientists and controllers who followed the feat from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, California. 

The significance of this achievement is that it was the first time that an aircraft made by man was controlled at an average distance of about 380 million kilometers and flew in the atmosphere of another planet, whose characteristics are very different to that Earth’s, starting from the force of the friction of an atmosphere with 62% less gravity than ours. 

This was a challenge for the engineers, as they had to calculate the air resistance and the exact power that the Ingenuity engine must develop in order not to be thrown into the air and lose a robot aircraft and its multi-million dollar imaging projects.

One of the most outstanding points of the mission is that the helicopter flew thanks to a program stored in its computer that gave it the order to take off, rise to a certain altitude, control the altitude and the speed of the wind that was expected to blow at the flight’s time.

The artifact cannot be controlled directly, in real time, from Earth because a radio wave command takes approximately 4 and a half minutes to reach Mars and then another 4 and a half minutes to return to our planet. 

“Ingenuity is the latest in a long and storied tradition of NASA projects achieving a space exploration goal once thought impossible,” said US Space Agency Acting Administrator Steve Jurczyk. 

“The X-15 was a pathfinder for the space shuttle. Mars Pathfinder and its Sojourner rover did the same for three generations of Mars rovers. We don’t know exactly where Ingenuity will lead us, but today’s results indicate the sky – at least on Mars – may not be the limit,” he added. 

Wright Brothers 

Meanwhile, NASA Associate Administrator for Science, Thomas Zurbuchen, announced that the site on Mars where that first flight took place was dubbed “Wright Brothers Field,” "in recognition of the ingenuity and innovation that continue to propel exploration.”

The first flight of Ingenuity was full of uncertainties because Mars has a gravity of one third that of Earth and a very thin atmosphere, with only 1 percent of the pressure on the surface compared to Earth. That means there are relatively few air molecules that the 1.2-meter rotors can interact with to get the propulsion needed to lift off the ground. 

“We have been thinking for so long about having our Wright brothers moment on Mars, and here it is,” said MiMi Aung, project manager for the Mars Ingenuity Helicopter at JPL. 

“We will take a moment to celebrate our success and then take a cue from Orville and Wilbur regarding what to do next. History shows they got back to work – to learn as much as they could about their new aircraft – and so will we,” she added. 

New flights 

The Ingenuity helicopter flew to Mars attached to the main body of the vehicle Perseverance, which was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 30, 2020, and touched the Martian surface on February 18, 2021. Ingenuity was deployed on April 3 on the surface of the Jezero crater.

Three days after the first flight, Ingenuity made its second flight on April 22, rising five meters above the Martian surface and moving laterally at a distance of 2 meters, then returning and landing where it had taken off.

In its third incursion, on April 25, the small helicopter rose again five meters and then flew for about 50 meters, then returned and landed on the place from which it had taken off, in a flight that lasted a total of 80 seconds. 

In his fourth flight, on April 30, Ingenuity completed a distance of 266 meters for 117 seconds, while on its fifth flight it moved 129 meters to adopt a new location, after which it rose 10 meters, twice that the previous occasions, to take some photographs and then to rest on that new site, in an operation of 108 seconds. 

Demonstration phase 

According to NASA scientists, the sixth flight of Ingenuity —which should occur on or near May 26— will be the first of the helicopter’s “demonstration phase”. During the first five flights, the team wanted to know if the aircraft would operate as expected, and they also wanted to test the operation of its batteries and its performance in the extreme weather of Mars, and they consider that it performed better than expected. 

In the new phase, Ingenuity will show its practical applications, including the exploration of multiple surface features from the air, when data and images will be recorded and returned to Earth for analysis. 

Chinese rover 

In addition to the United Arab Emirates —which put its Amal (“Hope”) probe into orbit around Mars on February 9— and the United States, the third country that recently joined the exploration of the Red Planet was China, which landed its Zhurong vehicle on Sunday, May 16, as part of its Tianwen-1 mission, launched in July 2020. 

Then, on Wednesday 19, it deployed the robot and sent the first black and white images of Mars’ surface to Earth, which were released by the Chinese Space Agency.

It is expected that the orbital probe and the rover spend about three months taking pictures, collecting geographic data and collecting and analyzing rock samples.

The six-wheeled, solar-powered rover weights 240 kilograms and is named after Zhurong, a mythical Chinese god of fire.

The objective of the robotic vehicle will be to study rocks on the surface of Mars and its atmosphere, in addition to looking for signs of life, including the possible existence of water or ice under its surface. 

Mission vice commander Zhang Yuhua said that the Zhurong vehicle was designed to operate for 92 Earth days (or 90 Martian days, known as “sols” and which are slightly longer than Earth days) and that he will share data that collect through the probe that remains in orbit. 

Source: NASA and BBC.