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If we could just stop polluting and warming our planet, and stop the dozens of wars underway, there would be no need to go to Mars. There are some signs of progress but avoiding nuclear war and major flooding is not a sure thing. In addition to establishing human settlements on Mars, there is a lot which will be learned in the process which can have benefits on Earth. Learning is underway and NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars is leading the way with multiple firsts.

One of the firsts we are learning from is the extraction of oxygen from the red planet. The atmosphere on Mars is very thin but contains 96% carbon dioxide (CO2). The CO2 molecules consist of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. NASA has developed a  toaster-size experimental instrument aboard Perseverance called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) which can accomplish the task. MOXIE was tested on April 20. The test was successful. The MOXIE separated oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules. The byproduct was carbon monoxide (CO), CO2 with just one oxygen atom, which was emitted into the Martian atmosphere as a waste product.

Another possibility is to recover water from regolith, a blanket of unconsolidated, loose, heterogeneous superficial deposits covering solid rock. It includes dust, broken rocks, and other related materials. Scientists believe they can extract potable water from the regolith. Developing a supply of oxygen and water from Mars is essential for space exploration because the supply would be too heavy to transport. What the scientists are developing is a strategy of “living off the land”.

NASA said the MOXIE technology demonstration could “pave the way for science fiction to become science fact”. The proof of concept for extracting and storing oxygen on Mars is a really big deal for two reasons. First, the oxygen can help power rockets to lift astronauts from the planet’s surface and head back to Earth or on to other planets. Second, a MOXIE could potentially provide breathable air for astronauts. MOXIE is just one of many innovations onboard the six-wheeled rover.

The Perseverance project cost $2.7 billion, but one of the most exciting projects onboard was the $85 million Ingenuity helicopter. After the Perseverance landed, the helicopter was released from the belly of the rover onto the surface. On April 22, NASA’s Ingenuity lifted off from “Wright Brothers Field” on the surface of Mars for its second flight. The strategy is for each of the planned five flights to be more aggressive in terms of altitude, duration, and maneuvering. This second flight lasted 51.9 seconds.

The first flight went to an altitude of 10 feet, this time to 16 feet. After hovering, the helicopter tilted five degrees enabling the craft to move sideways for seven feet. After angling its camera in different directions, Ingenuity headed back to the center of the airfield and landed. NASA said, “It sounds simple, but there are many unknowns regarding how to fly a helicopter on Mars.” It is much easier on Earth.

Gravity on Mars is about one third that on Earth. One of the challenges is the atmosphere is just 1% of the density on Earth. That means there aren’t as many particles of air to allow the rotating blades to gain lift. The blades are super light and spin at 2,500 revolutions per minute. The four-pound Ingenuity is gathering huge amounts of data which will prove invaluable for planning future missions. The data is also corroborating the modeling, simulations, and tests performed by the incredible engineering team on Earth.

Ideally, the rotorcraft would be flown with a joystick back at NASA but being 170 million miles away and the complexity of getting the data timely makes the joystick approach impossible. Instead, the engineers create software instructions which are transmitted to an orbiting satellite which in turn sends the instructions down to the Perseverance rover and then to the Ingenuity. The instructions allow the helicopter to fly autonomously, in other words on its own. Ingenuity is a robotic helicopter.

Using a helicopter for surveillance on Mars could become very important in future missions. The rover is amazing as it shoots laser beams at rocks, drills into them, and travels around the surface of the planet. However, other areas of interest are cliffs, craters, and mountains. A helicopter might be able to find water seeping from the side of a cliff or deep in a crater. NASA is already sketching out plans for a larger helicopter which can carry additional instrumentation.

Perseverance and Ingenuity demonstrate awesome engineering and science, and are setting an exciting stage for future human exploration and colonization on Mars. In the meantime, we are going to see some amazing video as Perseverance captures the flights of Ingenuity. The plan is to push the Ingenuity to its limit, meaning until it can no longer fly.