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The nights are cold. The air is thin. And still, she got that helicopter to fly

MiMi Aung, project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explains what it took to achieve this once inconceivable milestone.

The nights are cold. The air is thin. And still, she got that helicopter to fly
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“Flying a rotorcraft on Mars has been considered almost impossible by a lot of people until now, because the atmosphere there is so thin,” says MiMi Aung, project manager for Mars Helicopter Ingenuity, the first powered, controlled aircraft to fly on another planet, which landed with the Perseverance Rover last spring. “You’re pushing the atmosphere through the rotor system so that you can achieve powered flight,” she says, which requires the rotors to achieve a rotational speed of about 2,400 rpm, far higher than would be needed on Earth—while carrying equipment for navigating, charging itself, and communicating with its base station. Plus, it has to survive on its own in Mars’s environment, “where it’s really cold at night,” says Aung, who earlier at the Jet Propulsion Lab developed the first digital receiver to track tiny signals from deep space and worked on the Terrestrial Planet Finder Interferometer, which looked to discover Earth-like planets around nearby stars and evidence of life. “Packing all of that capability into 1.8 kilograms—that itself was innovation.” Ingenuity has already sent back color images of Mars’s terrain. Now it’s exploring the Red Planet further, helping the helicopter team scout new landing sites.

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[Illustration:Nigel Sussman]
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