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What’s happening with the helicopter on Mars? We have an update on Ingenuity’s progress. Meanwhile, Curiosity’s camera are helping geologists find clues to the mysteries of Martian water!

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When it comes to spaceflight, a lot of what we get to do is not so much flying as it is falling... with style, of course. But soon, NASA plans to complete the very first powered, controlled flight on another world. After 6 years of design and testing, a 1.8 kilogram helicopter named Ingenuity is planned to take flight on Mars.

Ingenuity traveled to the red planet hiding under the Perseverance rover, which landed on February 18th. But it took some time to identify a safe place for Ingenuity’s flight. NASA needed a 10 by 10 meter region sufficiently flat and free from debris, and then had to drive Percy there.

After that, it took 6 whole days to lower Ingenuity onto the surface and separate it from the rover. The first goal: Surviving the cold temperatures of a Martian night. Which they did.

But that’s not the only hurdle engineers had to anticipate when designing Ingenuity. Since Mars’s atmosphere is only about 1% the density of Earth’s, both generating lift and maneuvering are more difficult. That’s why Ingenuity has larger blades, at about 1.2 meters, and has to spin them faster than if it were flying on Earth.

Remember -- that’s for a 2-kilo craft! And it’s despite the fact that it’s fighting Mars’s lower gravitational pull, which is less than half of Earth’s. The other challenge is flying at the exact right time – it needs enough daylight before the flight to charge its batteries, but it can’t lift off too late in the day because it needs enough energy stored when the Sun sets so its internal heaters can keep it from freezing.

An anomaly during a pre-flight test pushed back the anticipated launch date by a few days. At the time we’re filming this, engineers are working on a software fix, which they’re hoping will get Ingenuity off the ground soon. We’d hoped to bring you the results from its maiden voyage today, but spaceflight gonna spaceflight.

And you have to admit designing and uploading a software patch to a whole other planet takes… haha… ingenuity. Because of the communications delay between Mars and Earth, Ingenuity will have to make its expected 40ish-second flight all by itself – just like Perseverance had to do during part of its descent. That may not sound very long, but it’s longer than the 12 seconds the Wright Brothers managed to do back in 1903.

And here’s a fun fact – a piece of fabric from that plane is actually stored on Ingenuity. If Ingenuity’s solar panels can continue to charge its batteries, it could make up to four more test flights in the next few weeks. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Ingenuity is purely meant as a proof of concept – to test the feasibility of flight on Mars. It doesn’t have any instruments onboard to do any science. But it opens the doors for future missions to do just that, and provide a new way we can study our neighboring planet.

Meanwhile, in some more ancient Mars news, another Martian rover is hard at work studying the red planet’s watery past. Last week in the journal Geology, scientists revealed Mars may not have dried up the way we’ve been thinking. NASA’s Curiosity rover is currently hanging out near a mountain at the center of Gale.

Crater. The area is full of sedimentary rock, meaning stuff that formed from the deposition of smaller mineral pieces over time, either from water or wind. And by pointing one of its cameras at the side of this mountain, Curiosity has revealed a bunch of sedimentary layers made in different ways and stretching hundreds of meters tall.

And in geology, different layers can tell us about different time periods. While humans have had eyes on this mountainside from orbit for some time, Curiosity’s much closer vantage point has provided the detail we needed to decipher these layers – to start figuring out their exact chemical composition and explain how they formed. The base of the mountain is comprised of lake-deposited mudstones, which – as the name implies -- meant the area was really wet at the time.

Above that layer is a drier sandstone, which the team argues was most likely made as wind caused dunes to migrate to and fro during an arid period. And above that layer is another wet section, which matches sedimentary deposits similar to those formed at Earth’s river floodplains. In contrast with scientists’ previous assumptions, this alternation of layers suggests that Mars didn’t slowly and consistently lose its water over time.

It, well, alternated between wet and dry conditions, until about 3 billion years ago, when it became the desert we know and love today. Curiosity still has plenty left to do, including scaling up this mountain to drill into the rocks and vaporize samples with a laser to determine their molecular composition, which will paint us an even clearer picture of what happened all those eons ago. Between insights from Curiosity and Perseverance, and new ways of exploring Mars thanks to Ingenuity’s flights, our understanding of the Red Planet is really only just getting started.

We can’t hook you up with the opportunity to fly around and take pictures on another planet. But Skillshare can help you learn photography here at home. Like with the class Fundamentals of DSLR Photography, taught by Justin Bridges.

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What’s more, you can get a free trial of their Premium membership if you’re one of the first thousand people to click the link in the description. So thanks for your support. {♫Outro♫}.