Scientists at NASA's Pasadena-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory are working overtime on a second Mars mission less than a month after Perseverance landed, this time with the goal of launching a helicopter off the Red Planet's surface for the first time.
The plan is to use NASA's Ingenuity craft, a tiny helicopter custom-designed for flight on Mars, to hover the surface and take photos and videos. It's basically an incredibly expensive drone flight, with the operators millions of miles away and a short window that could make it a tricky maneuver.
The entire endeavor costs about $80 million, a high price tag for a potentially historic first mission.
NASA plans to launch its Mars chopper around April 8, and its test flight duration is limited to roughly a month. The helicopter was carried to Mars packed tightly onto the bottom of the Perseverance rover, which is about the size of a small car.
The expensive experiment is a risky gamble, especially because NASA's crafts are solar-powered.
Farah Alibay, an engineer at JPL working on the Perseverance rover mission and Ingenuity missions, said that time is a critical factor in the mission. The Ingenuity helicopter can't sustain itself after more than a day of darkness, so the team has roughly one Mars day to get it off the ground before its battery dies.
"The helicopter needs photons, it needs sun on its solar panels to charge its batteries and it can only survive one Martian night without that," Alibay said. "That's going to be a very stressful period but what I look forward to the most is after we do that drive is we'll get the first shot of Ingenuity on the surface of Mars, on her own, and I cannot wait to get that first picture."
This test flight with the Ingenuity helicopter would mark the first time a flying craft has landed and taken off on the Red Planet, although NASA has sent four different wheeled robots or rovers to the planet since it first landed the Sojourner in 1997.
"It will have 31 Earth days to attempt to be the first helicopter to fly on another planet," NASA Planetary Science Division Director Lori Glaze said during a briefing Tuesday. "Sojourner redefined what we thought was possible on the surface of Mars, and completely transformed our approach to how we explore there."
If the mission is successful, it could mean that NASA would look to work with private contractors to develop more craft like the Ingenuity. A JPL spokesperson didn't immediately return dot.LA's request for comment regarding which local companies it might look to work with on future Mars helicopter projects.
Elon Musk has been vocal about his desire to live on and colonize Mars, so perhaps SpaceX might look to advance the technology. NASA implied during the briefing we may one day see privatized short-distance air travel in space, as well as Earth.
"As far as identifying a specific opportunity in the near future, what we like to do within NASA is provide competitive opportunities for our community and so we do offer those on a periodic basis and would hope that the community would see this as a great opportunity to start thinking about aerial platforms as a potential way to really expand our Mars exploration," Glaze said.
The helicopter will also carry a small piece of aerospace history with it as it zooms around Mars – a piece of fabric from the Wright Brothers' first successful test airplane, which took off from Kitty Hawk, N.C. in 1903.
"We are very proud to honor that experimental aircraft from long ago by carrying a small piece of fabric," said J. Bob Balaram, ingenuity chief engineer at JPL. This, he said, is another "Wright brothers moment" in history.
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Fifteen years after her death, science-fiction author Octavia E. Butler has joined an exclusive pantheon of space luminaries memorialized on Mars.
Today NASA announced that the Red Planet locale where its Perseverance rover touched down last month is called Octavia E. Butler Landing, in honor of a Black author who emphasized diversity in tales of alternate realities and far-out futures.
"Butler's protagonists embody determination and inventiveness, making her a perfect fit for the Perseverance rover mission and its theme of overcoming challenges," Kathryn Stack Morgan, deputy project scientist for Perseverance, said in a news release. "Butler inspired and influenced the planetary science community and many beyond, including those typically under-represented in STEM fields."
Butler grew up poor in Pasadena and attended Pasadena City College, where she focused on writing. She published her first book in 1976 and broke into the mostly white, male dominated world of science fiction writing. In 1995, she was awarded a fellowship from the MacAurthur Foundation, She moved to the Seattle area in 1999, where she died unexpectedly in 2006 at the age of 58, after sustaining a head injury in a fall on a walkway outside her home in Lake Forest Park, Wash.
In his own tribute to Butler, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for space science, emphasized the connection to Southern California, the home of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Perseverance mission operations.
Science-fiction author Octavia E. Butler grew up in Pasadena and spent the last years of her life in the Seattle area. (Writers House Literary Agency / Courtesy Ching-Ming Cheung)
"I can think of no better person to mark this historic landing site than Octavia E. Butler, who not only grew up next door to JPL in Pasadena, but she also inspired millions with her visions of a science-based future," Zurbuchen said. "Her guiding principle, 'When using science, do so accurately,' is what the science team at NASA is all about. Her work continues to inspire today's scientists and engineers across the globe – all in the name of a bolder, more equitable future for all."
The official names of geographical features on other planets must be approved by the International Astronomical Union, but NASA has a tradition of giving its own names to off-world landing sites – for example, Tranquility Base, the place on the moon where Apollo 11 touched down in 1969.
The 1997 landing site for NASA's Pathfinder mission to Mars is known as Carl Sagan Memorial Station, in honor of the late astronomer and author of "Contact."
In 2004, NASA designated the landing sites for the Opportunity and Spirit Mars rovers as Challenger Memorial Station and Columbia Memorial Station, respectively. Those names honor space shuttle crews who lost their lives in 1986 and 2003.
The place where NASA's Curiosity rover touched down in 2012 is called Bradbury Landing, as a tribute to Ray Bradbury, the author of "The Martian Chronicles" and many other works of science fiction.
Perseverance has already begun to venture out from Butler Landing: In addition to announcing the landing site's name, members of the mission team shared imagery from the 1-ton, six-wheeled rover's first drive since its Feb. 18 touchdown.
Perseverance's first drive on Mars
Thursday's traverse lasted about 33 minutes and put 21 feet (6.5 meters) on Perseverance's odometer. Color pictures sent back from Perseverance's hazard avoidance cameras show the tread marks left in Mars' red dirt as the rover took its first spin. Such imagery will be used to assess the dynamics of Perseverance's retro-rocket landing, which kicked up dust and exposed rock formations at Butler Landing.
"When it comes to wheeled vehicles on other planets, there are few first-time events that measure up in significance to that of the first drive," said Anais Zarifian, rover mobility testbed engineer at JPL. "This was our first chance to 'kick the tires' and take Perseverance out for a spin. The rover's six-wheel drive responded superbly. We are now confident our drive system is good to go, capable of taking us wherever the science leads us over the next two years."
The rover's software has already been updated to replace the program for landing with the program for surface operations. Mission controllers have also conducted procedures for deployment and checkout of Perseverance's RIMFAX, MOXIE and MEDA instruments, as well as its heavy-duty robotic arm.
"Tuesday's first test of the robotic arm was a big moment for us. That's the main tool the science team will use to do close-up examination of the geologic features of Jezero Crater, and then we'll drill and sample the ones they find the most interesting," said Robert Hogg, Perseverance's deputy mission manager. "When we got confirmation of the robotic arm flexing its muscles, including images of it working beautifully after its long trip to Mars – well, it made my day."
From its vantage point at Octavia E. Butler Landing, NASA's Perseverance rover can see a remnant of a fan-shaped deposit of sediments known as a delta (the raised area of dark brown rock in the middle ground) with its Mastcam-Z instrument. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU)
More than 7,000 raw images have been sent back to Earth and are available online in a gallery supported by Amazon Web Services. That stockpile is sure to grow as Perseverance ramps up full science observations.
The mission plan calls for the rover to make regular commutes of 650 feet (200 meters) or more to sites of scientific interest. "We're going to do some longer drives," Zarifian said. "This is really just the beginning."
The primary goal of the $2.7 billion Perseverance mission is to analyze the composition of Martian soil for traces of ancient life, and store up promising samples for return to Earth by later missions over the next decade.
This story first appeared on GeekWire.
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When Perseverance arrives on Mars early next year, it will be the first landfall for a rover carrying 3D-printed metal parts and a small victory for proponents of the technique in the high-cost, high-risk world of the U.S. aerospace program.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, nestled in the foothills of La Cañada Flintridge, has seen a slow cultural shift over the last decade toward the adoption of 3D printing techniques, more formally known as "additive manufacturing," in spacecraft design. The technology uses lasers to melt metal powder that is layered to precise computer modeling, until that metal takes the shape of whatever engineers need.
For years, 3D printing has been relegated to the realm of nerdy hobbyists, but its adoption by startups and big business has helped push NASA leaders toward accepting more innovation despite the risks. These days, 3D printing has been used on airplane engines, houses, hearing aids, chocolates, Tesla car components and even a pair of Adidas shoes.
"I have seen a 3D printed burrito, and it didn't look as delicious as Chipotle," said Scott Roberts, a JPL materials technologist, with a laugh.
The evolution has been decades-long, and partly propelled by the private sector push of aerospace companies like SpaceX, Relativity Space, Blue Origin, Maxar Technologies and Lockheed Martin.
While no panacea, some of the benefits of 3D printing come from its ability to save time in the otherwise time-consuming machining process and to engineer bespoke components that cut down on mass and simplify parts. All are crucial, as aerospace missions are often timed to planetary alignment and can cost millions more dollars per kilogram.
The goal is to use additive manufacturing to enhance performance, solve problems and make parts "you just can't make any other way," Roberts said. "If your schedule is slipping and all of a sudden you have to wait two years, the monetary cost is enormous."
JPL technologists are still working on understanding its uses and how to improve it. But there remains a culture and learning gap that's prevented its widespread adoption. The largest barrier, however, is the worry by old timers: Why risk screwing up a historic mission and ruining future opportunities by replacing tried-and-true manufacturing techniques?
NASA's 3D Printing Technique www.youtube.com
The Nuts And Bolts of Printing Rover Parts
Amid planning for the Mars rover mission, Andrew Shapiro, who manages technology formulation at JPL, said he was interested in which parts made sense to manufacture additively and which didn't.
When Shapiro checked out work on MOXIE, which is testing a technology to produce oxygen on the Red Planet carried by the rover, engineers told him they had a problem sealing its crucial heat exchanger, a complex system with lots of very fine channels.
"It was very expensive to machine, they were going to blow their budgets and schedules, and it was going to take months," Shapiro said. "My office has advanced technology experiments, so I said, 'I'll fabricate one using additive for you, see if it works. If you like it, use it.'"
The part was far less expensive to print than it would have been to create through traditional manufacturing methods — and it solved the MOXIE engineers' problems.
The Perseverance rover, which lands on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021, carries 11 metal parts that were 3D printed. Five of those are on its PIXL instrument, which is about the size of a lunchbox and will be used to help the rover search for signs of fossilized microbial life by shooting out X-ray beams.
The instrument was designed with a two-piece titanium shell that has to be extremely thin, which made traditional machining methods very challenging, time consuming and therefore costly. Using metal 3D printing, JPL outsourced the work to Carpenter Additive, in Camarillo, Calif., which created components that were several times lighter than they would have otherwise been able to achieve.
The MOXIE heat exchanger, however, was 3D printed in-house at Caltech, which manages JPL. Rather than welding together two separate parts, JPL's engineers 3D printed it in one single piece.
Andre Pate, the group lead for additive manufacturing at JPL, called the use of 3D metal printing on the rover "a big win for us at JPL."
"We are trying to convince our own people here who are more conservative and less willing to take on risk -- rightfully so," Pate said. "We're trying to prove that, that there isn't as much risk or that there's ways to mitigate that risk."
This X-ray image shows the interior of a palm-size 3D-printed heat exchanger inside Perseverance's Mars Oxygen In-situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE)NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Private Sector Forges Ahead
In the meantime, a broader ecosystem of startups is pushing ahead with incorporating additive techniques.
SpaceX is hiring for multiple roles, including a materials engineer and a manufacturing technician, who can "support 3D printing technology for production of components used on both the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon spacecraft." Its rocket resupply, which recently traveled to the International Space Station, had 3D printed parts, Shapiro said.
Canoo, the electric vehicle company, is also hiring an additive manufacturing lead as it prepares for its first vehicle launch. And of course, Relativity Space is 3D printing rockets with the ultimate goal of doing so on Mars.
"JPL is very slow moving in this way," Shapiro said. "Places like SpaceX or Maxar, they 3D print dozens of parts. [These] other companies have been quicker to adopt the technology. Interestingly enough, I think we know more about the technology than they do because SpaceX isn't willing to pay a lot of universities to develop models and that kind of thing."
Plus, Shapiro added, "they all want to keep their stuff secret and don't want to share it with the rest of the world. But the rest of the world passes them by when they do that."
Regardless, as more of its subcontractors and other aerospace companies use 3D manufacturing techniques, JPL has been pushed to gain a better understanding, and it has shared that expertise with the companies even if lab leadership is less willing to incorporate it themselves, Shapiro said.
"JPL will actually adopt things more easily from the outside than the inside," Shapiro said. "So it's easier for me to go buy a part from a subcontractor using additive than it is for me to say 'we should design this using additive'."
Relativity Space hopes to make Mars-bound rocketships with 3D printing. assets.rebelmouse.io
Part of the reason is that NASA management is still reluctant to adopt new untested technologies for building parts that have otherwise been effectively created using longstanding conventional manufacturing processes.
"So when someone says 'would you...risk a billion dollar mission on it'? You have to argue, it isn't really that risky," Roberts said.
Several years ago, JPL vendor Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft Juno to collect data and take photos of Jupiter. Lockheed slipped in a couple additive parts into that spacecraft, Shapiro said.
"They didn't tell us until after it had launched," Shapiro said, noting that "our vendors are willing to go a little further than we are."
It became the first planetary spacecraft to make use of 3D printed parts, specifically titanium metal brackets.
A Slow Start
The first time Andrew Shapiro — now a JPL thought leader in additive manufacturing — was approached by a colleague about using 3D printing for metal parts was around 11 years ago, when he was the chief technologist of the engineering enterprise division. Shapiro was aware of the tech, but it was not taken seriously for space flight.
"I told him to go away," Shapiro said. "I said, 'Naw, I don't think this will ever work.'"
Shapiro said he gave in to his colleague's persistence and traveled to a spin-off company of nearby Sandia Labs in Albuquerque, New Mexico to take a look. Soon, JPL was studying how to create a gradient of metal from, say, steel on one end of a part to titanium on the other, enabling the steel ends of two separate parts to be bolted together more effectively if need be.
"It turns out this is not easy to do. It took us about 10 years to figure it out," Shapiro said. "That's because that transition between the two metals can create brittle structures that break or fracture."
JPL ended up sponsoring a slew of studies at universities, with Shapiro urging professors to look into how additive manufacturing works. At the time, Shapiro said, JPL realized nobody understood the process. JPL worked with the universities to set standards so that results were comparable and compatible. Today, every major university with an engineering program in the country has a significant program modeling additive processes.
Adopting and proving out the technology also required computer power to improve to study variables like air vortices created by a laser hitting metal powder and massive temperature gradients that go from a couple thousand degrees to room temperature in a tiny area, Shapiro said.
"I don't think the culture is there yet," Shapiro said. "It's being selectively adopted still [but] we haven't turned our whole design force into using additive."
Roberts said that sometimes it's a matter of an engineer saying " 'Oh man, we need this part,' and to make it traditionally is going to take two years" and that's when additive manufacturing, which can instead make the part in six months, gets its chance.
Another problem is there aren't great classes out there for teaching 3D printing at JPL's level.
And, the reality is that some people are intuitively very good, while other engineers just don't think that way, Shapiro said. "Designing parts of a spacecraft really shouldn't be just left to intuition," he said.
Shapiro said he believes the future of 3D printing includes integrating functions — much like today's phone is a combination of telephone, calendar, calculator and notepads. One example of this might be printing the antenna on a spacecraft directly as part of its structure. But no one knows how to design for this yet, Shapiro said, there's no guidebook or design rules. That's why he is working with colleagues to put together a course and some guidelines.
A 3D printer head scans over each layer of a part, blowing metal powder that is melted by a laser. - NASA/JPL-Caltech s3.amazonaws.com
"It's quite complex, and it's probably going to take me another 10 years to come up with it," Shapiro said. "We've just scratched the surface in terms of what the capabilities are."
For now, Shapiro believes JPL will continue to put more 3D-printed pieces into spacecraft, but doing larger prints like an entire space craft requires a major shift in culture and engineering understanding.
"It's difficult to answer when will people change their minds," Shapiro said. "JPL management tends to reflect NASA management, and NASA management is extremely risk averse, because they don't want to spend billions of dollars on a spacecraft, have it fail, and have a congressional hearing on why their multi-billion dollar spacecraft failed."
Even though many in JPL management would like things to progress faster, there are concerns that proposals that include 3D printing won't get the necessary buy-in, and could potentially put JPL's competitive edge at risk for NASA projects.
Still, Roberts is optimistic:
"We didn't have the computational power to do it until 10 to 15 years ago," he said. but with that power, "it's going to change the way we design things in the future."
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