Ingenuity enters operations demonstration phase as Perseverance team marks initial science returns

Nearly three months after landing on Mars, NASA’s Perseverance mission is marking its initial science… The post Ingenuity enters operations demonstration phase as Perseverance team marks initial science returns appeared first on

Ingenuity enters operations demonstration phase as Perseverance team marks initial science returns

Nearly three months after landing on Mars, NASA’s Perseverance mission is marking its initial science returns from the Martian surface as the Ingenuity helicopter enters its new phase of operational demonstration flights on the Red Planet. 

Ingenuity’s flight will gather information on the surrounding Martian terrain for the mission’s teams to identify science targets for the mobile laboratory.

Ingenuity into new phase

The history-making helicopter known as Ingenuity has now begun a new series of operations on Mars, setting yet another altitude flight record on the Red Planet.

On 7 May, Ingenuity completed its fifth flight, a 129 meter journey south of Wright Brothers Field. After translating to its new location, the craft climbed to 10 meters altitude — a new record — to capture images of the surrounding area.

The flight lasted 108 seconds, commencing at 19:26 UTC / 12:33 local time at Jezero Crater, Mars.

“We bid adieu to our first Martian home, Wright Brothers Field, with grateful thanks for the support it provided to the historic first flights of a planetary rotorcraft,” said Bob Balaram, chief engineer for Ingenuity at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL).

Ingenuity crossed millions of kilometers of space and was lowered to the surface of Mars by the Perseverance rover, which relays results from Ingenuity back to Earth and transmits instructions from Earth to Ingenuity.

Ingenuity, seen after landing on 7 May by Perseverance’s Mastcam-Z imager. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS)

The rotorcraft made the first powered, controlled flight by a heavier-than-air flying machine on another planet on 19 April 2021, almost 117 years after the Wright Brothers made their history-making flight on Kill Devil Hill in North Carolina.

During its first flight, the 1.8 kilogram Ingenuity ascended to 3 meters, hovered, rotated, and then landed safely.

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  • The rotorcraft’s first flight lasted 39.1 seconds, as compared to the Wright Flyer’s 12 second flight. As a nod to the Wright Brothers, JPL incorporated a small piece of the Wright Flyer’s actual fabric into Ingenuity itself.

    That piece of fabric has now been involved with the first powered, controlled flight on two planets. Moreover, the “airfield” where Ingenuity first flew, next to the Van Zyl Overlook where Perseverance was parked, was named Wright Brothers Field.

    On Ingenuity’s second flight on 22 April, the electric helicopter rose vertically to 5 meters, flew laterally for 2 meters, made three turns, stayed airborne for 51.6 seconds, and then landed. A few days later, Ingenuity took flight for the third time on 25 April.

    The rotorcraft rose vertically to 5 meters, flew laterally for 50 meters, achieved an airspeed of 2 m/s, and landed safely.

    Ingenuity’s fourth flight was originally planned for 29 April, but its computer failed to change to flight mode and the craft stayed on the ground. After JPL evaluated what happened, the flight was rescheduled for the following day.

    The fourth flight featured a climb to 5 meters and a flight south for 133 meters and then back for a 266 meter round trip. The flight lasted 117 seconds and captured numerous photographs for aerial surveillance of the surrounding landscape. 

    While designed to provide 350 watts for a 90 second flight, Ingenuity’s power system has performed better than expected, along with its other systems.

    An aspect of Ingenuity’s better than expected performance is its rotors’ ability to shake the ever-present Martian dust off of the craft’s solar panels during flight. This ability to keep dust off of the solar panels not only extends Ingenuity’s mission, but could also provide data on future solar panel designs that need to function on the Red Planet.

    With its fifth flight complete, Ingenuity is now at a location known as Airfield B. 

    “The plan forward is to fly Ingenuity in a manner that does not reduce the pace of Perseverance science operations,” said Balaram. “We may get a couple more flights in over the next few weeks, and then the agency will evaluate how we’re doing.”

    “We have already been able to gather all the flight performance data that we originally came here to collect. Now, this new operations demo gives us an opportunity to further expand our knowledge of flying machines on other planets.”


    While Ingenuity has been busy with its flight program, Perseverance has also stayed busy when not needed as a communications platform for the rotorcraft.

    The rover has not only continued system checkouts, but also begun initial science operations and important technology demonstrations applicable to future Mars missions.

    One of the largest successes so far is the MOXIE, or Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment. MOXIE is designed to test the process of converting Martian air (96% carbon dioxide) into oxygen for use by astronauts or as fuel for rockets. 

    On 20 April, MOXIE successfully made 5.4 grams of oxygen in one hour using a solid oxide electrolysis process, enough for 10 minutes of breathable air for an astronaut.

    The MOXIE unit is a 17.1 kilogram box mounted to the front right side of Perseverance. It is about the size of a car battery but is designed to withstand temperatures of 800℃ inherent with the process that converts carbon dioxide to oxygen and carbon monoxide, which will be expelled into the Martian air. 

    Its gold coating also protects Perseverance from damaging heat that might otherwise threaten the other instruments and the rover.

    MOXIE will be run at least nine more times over the next Martian year (two Earth years), and will be tested under different conditions, including time of day and temperature, as it works to produce up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour. 

    The data gathered will inform the design and operation of larger units that will have to process Martian air and regolith into products such as breathable air, water, and rocket fuel for future missions.

    Future oxygen-generating devices will need to be up to one ton in mass to produce much larger quantities of oxygen, most of which would become liquid oxidizer for future rockets that plan to launch from the Martian surface.

    Another technology demonstrator that has functioned well during the first months of Perseverance’s mission is the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer, or MEDA. MEDA is an automated weather station that has been gathering daily reports on dust particle concentration and size as well as surface radiation, wind speed and direction, temperature, air pressure, and humidity. 

    Weather reports will be critical for future crewed missions at Mars so astronauts can be aware of hazards that could impact their mission. Local weather data from MEDA can also be used with global climate and weather data being collected from the Al-Amal orbiter from the United Arab Emirates to form a more complete picture of Mars’ weather and climate dynamics.

    With the primary science phase of Perseverance’s mission beginning in earnest, the rover will now bring its science instruments to bear on the region where it currently resides.

    The area near the landing site is believed to contain mudstones from the middle of Jezero Crater’s ancient lake. The first surface samples will be taken from Perseverance’s current general location before the rover departs.

    Overall, Perseverance will trek toward the ancient river delta in Jezero Crater, traversing different geologic terrain and gathering data to help decode Martian geological history as well as its ancient habitability.

    (Lead image: Perseverance selfie with Ingenuity on the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/JPL)

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    SLS Core Stage Green Run validates propulsion system performance and modeling

    Engineers with NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) program and prime Core Stage contractor Boeing continue… The post SLS Core Stage Green Run validates propulsion system performance and modeling appeared first on

    SLS Core Stage Green Run validates propulsion system performance and modeling

    Engineers with NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) program and prime Core Stage contractor Boeing continue to review terabytes of data from the now-complete, once-in-a-generation Green Run design verification test campaign. A series of eight test cases were completed, culminating in a 500-second long, full-duration static firing of the stage in the B-2 Test Stand at Stennis.

    The Core Stage was the major new piece developed for the agency’s SLS launch vehicle, and both NASA and Boeing are pleased with results seen so far. Initial analysis and reviews of the test-firing data show that actual Main Propulsion System (MPS) performance was close to most predictions by analytical models and the system demonstrated operating margin during stressing tests conducted during the static fire.

    MPS performed well with fine-tuning

    The big orange rocket looks like the Space Shuttle’s less enormous orange External Tank, but among other Shuttle Orbiter components contained in the SLS Core Stage is all the Main Propulsion System (MPS) equipment for the care and feeding of four uprated Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME). Now called RS-25, Aerojet Rocketdyne had already adapted the engines for SLS; the Green Run campaign that lasted from January 2020 to April 2021 used four veteran flight SSMEs as special test equipment to evaluate the design of the rookie Core Stage.

    The eight test cases in the Green Run series culminated in a second Hot-Fire test on March 18 with Core Stage-1, the Artemis 1 flight vehicle, firing for a full-duration 500 seconds. The redo of the post-engine start aborted Hot-Fire test on January 16 completed all objectives for the test, picking up the balance that were missed or incomplete from January.

    After fine-tuning a few parameters based on observations and analysis of previous tests, the different elements of the MPS, from the propellant and feed systems to hydraulics/thrust vector control (TVC), pneumatics, and pressurization, tracked closely to updated analytical models in March 2021. “Overall our pre-test predictions proved to be very accurate,” Jonathan Looser, NASA SLS Core Stage Propulsion Lead, said in an interview with NASASpaceflight.

    “As we walked through the data ‘post-flight,’ we [could] see that our predictions in terms of vehicle loading, feed system performance, pressurization and pneumatics, TVC system, by and large were very close to our pre-test predictions if not right down the middle of those.”

    “It confirmed that most of our modeling was very good,” added Collin Jackson, Boeing Propulsion Technical Lead Engineer in an interview with NASASpaceflight. “Even the TVC, the limit was tripped but we were only going to go a few psi (pounds per square inch) below the limit, our post-flight analysis showed.”

    “That first abort on Hot-Fire 1 was caused by a TVC hydraulic pressure drop. That wasn’t unexpected, we were stressing the TVC systems right at that point. It just went a little bit below the limit.”

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  • The core stage has four hydraulic systems, one for each RS-25 engine; the systems simultaneously provide the hydraulics for engine control, managed by the engine, and engine gimbaling, managed by the stage. The Hot-Fire test objectives included multiple stress tests of the hydraulics, and the first one had just started during the January 16 firing.

    As the stage TVC began moving all four engines at their maximum required gimbal speed, the demand on hydraulics caused a couple of measurements to drop below limits. “It was just a very conservative limit that was put in place,” Jackson said. “[The limit was] really designed to capture a major leak, and what we saw was that we just got a little too close for the performance of the system.”

    “We saw a little bit more pressure drop, and we ended up just busting that limit. And that’s what shut us down. So we were able to go in there, confirm all of our [analyses were] conservative, convince ourselves that we could lower that limit, and we did.”

    “You saw the result during Hot-Fire 2,” he added. “It performed very well.”

    Pressurization and propellant feed systems demonstrated over three tankings and two firings

    The Green Run campaign started with a structural modal test in late January 2020 and was suspended for two months by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. After work resumed under strict health protocols and much more remote participation, the stage was finally powered up in late June to checkout both the vehicle’s and Boeing’s Stage Controller ground computer systems.

    Over the summer of 2020, the tests built on top of one another, with MPS pneumatic and hydraulic checkouts demonstrating that the stage’s mechanical systems worked within operational limits as commanded via the ground control system. The big tests that involved fueling and firing of the stage were delayed by an issue with a liquid hydrogen (LH2) prevalve and by a series of tropical weather systems that forced Boeing to repeatedly prepare for a hurricane strike.

    The sixth and final tropical system to impact Louisiana and the nearby Stennis area was the worst; Hurricane Zeta passed directly through the Stennis area, though weakened as it moved inland. The vehicle was finally fueled for the first time in December 2020, leading up to the Hot-Fire tests in January and March 2021.

    The tanking tests and the static firings gave the propulsion teams their first chance to see how the different MPS subsystems performed.

    “The key one that we were actually looking for from an MPS [point of view] on the Hot-Fire was the pressurization system,” Jackson said. “The key thing that we learned is that the MPS system would always have enough gas to [pressurize] the tank while the TVC system was pulling off as much gas as it could ever demand.”

    “We always talked about this ground run that we’re doing at Stennis, it’s the maximum demand. And that really was. We ran at the maximum limit to make sure that the TVC [Core Auxiliary Power Units] were pulling the maximum amount of gas from each engine to keep cycling and keep driving that turbine.”

    Operation of the MPS and the RS-25 engines becomes interdependent shortly after the engines reach mainstage operation. The vehicle hydraulics are initially driven by a ground-supplied helium spin-start system, but that is quickly bypassed by engine exhaust gas pressure when the RS-25 engines are up and running.

    Credit: NASA/SSC.

    (Photo Caption: The four RS-25 engines are throttled at their 85 percent power level just prior to being commanded to shutdown during the Core Stage Green Run Hot-Fire test on March 18. The engines were allowed to run until propellant depletion when the low-level sensors triggered the cutoff command. On a nominal ascent the propellant load in the stage will include performance margins and the vehicle will command shutdown based on navigation targets prior to depletion.)

    At that point, gaseous hydrogen tapped off the running engines is both pressurizing the LH2 tank and powering the stage’s hydraulics — which are providing the hydraulic pressure to gimbal the engines and for the engines to maintain and control their valve positions.  So the running engines are driving the hydraulics, which are sustaining the engine firing and power steering.

    “The key thing there [was] we’ve never actually pressurized the tank, so we had a lot of analysis that we were going through with Shuttle test data and Delta test data, but until you run it in the SLS architecture and see our tank with our insulation, our diffuser, there’s still some learning that’s going to go on to make sure that you’ve verified those models,” Jackson explained. “There was just some structural differences between the Shuttle tank and our tank so that was the biggest unknown going into it.”

    “If you remember, the Space Shuttle drove TVC using hydrazine, so it was completely disconnected, where in SLS we’re driving it from that hydrogen pressurization gas supply. So we married the two, and we wanted to make sure of our models and all of our analysis was confirmed to be right… that we could do both at the same time with that same amount of flow.”

    Jackson noted that NASA and Boeing had the ability to adjust the pressurization flow by changing out some orifices within the system if that had been warranted. “Post-operation, we can change out orifices to increase the flow because there’s a certain amount of bypass flow that goes into the tank and control flow,” he said.

    “We could have increased the orifices to get more flow going up the pressurization leg of the MPS system. It was really just refinement, and the analysis, as I mentioned, was excellent.”

    Credit: Brady Kenniston for NSF.

    (Photo Caption: Core Stage-1 continues firing during its full-duration, static, Hot-Fire ground test on March 18 at Stennis. Running for the full-duration all the way to propellant depletion allowed a low-level cutoff test to accomplished and also validated propellant flow analytic modeling.)

    The system’s actual performance tracked right on top of the model predictions, so the option isn’t needed. “We went straight down the middle of where we planned to go, and it operated the way we planned,” Jackson added.

    “We showed we could gimbal as much as NASA [Guidance, Navigation, and Control] would ever demand. The team was very happy with it, and there’s no need to actually size up the orifices. So we’re in really good shape there. Everything performed great.”

    The three different gimbal profiles provided data sets with different initial conditions, but Jackson said the first gimbal test was especially stressing to the system. “The first one was more of a concern for TVC because the [hydraulic] fluid was colder,” he explained.

    During the countdown, prior to ignition, all the equipment in the engine section is cold soaked, surrounded by cryogenic propellant lines during hours of tanking and engine chilldown.  A heated nitrogen gas purge, heaters on the hydraulic lines, and a circulation pump in each system help keep temperatures acceptable before the engines start.

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