The Mars Helicopter is riding to the Red Planet this summer with NASA's Perseverance rover. The helicopter's chief engineer, Bob Balaram, shares the saga of how it came into being.
Evenbefore this interviewer can finish the question, "Did anyone ever tell youthis was a crazy idea?" Bob Balaram jumps in: "Everyone. All the time."
This"crazy idea" is the Mars Helicopter, currently at Kennedy Space Center waiting to hitch a ride to theRed Planet on the Mars Perseverance rover this summer.
AlthoughBalaram probably didn't know it at the time, the seed for an idea like thissprouted for him in the 1960s Apollo era, during his childhood in south India.His uncle wrote to the U.S. Consulate, asking for information about NASA andspace exploration. The bulging envelope they sent back, stuffed with glossybooklets, entranced young Bob. His interest in space was piqued further bylistening to the Moon landing on the radio. "I gobbled it up," hesays. "Long before the internet, the U.S. had good outreach. You had myeyeballs."
Hisactive brain and fertile imagination focused on getting an education, whichwould lead him to a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the IndianInstitute of Technology, a master's and Ph.D. in computer and systemsengineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a career at NASA's JetPropulsion Laboratory in Southern California. That's where he has remained for35 years as a robotics technologist.
Balaram'scareer has encompassed robotic arms, early Mars rovers, technology for anotional balloon mission to explore Venus and a stint as lead for the MarsScience Laboratory entry, descent and landing simulation software.
CuttingThrough Obstacles, Red Tape and the Martian Atmosphere
Aswith many innovative ideas, it took a village to make the helicopter happen. Inthe 1990s, Balaram attended a professional conference, where Stanford professorIlan Kroo spoke about a "mesicopter," a miniature airborne vehiclefor Earth applications that was funded as a NASA Innovative Advanced Conceptsproposal.
Thisled Balaram to think about using one on Mars. He suggested a joint proposalwith Stanford for a NASA Research Announcement submission and recruited AeroVironment,a small company in Simi Valley, California. The proposal got favorable reviews,and although it was not selected for funding at that time, it did yield ablade-rotor test under Mars conditions at JPL. Other than that, the idea "saton a shelf" for 15 years.
Fastforward to a conference where the University of Pennsylvania presented aboutthe use of drones and helicopters. Charles Elachi, then director of JPL,attended that session. When he returned to JPL, he asked whether something likethis could be used on Mars. A colleague of Balaram's mentioned his previouswork in that area of research. Balaramdusted off that proposal, and Elachi asked him to write a new one for thecompetitive call for Mars 2020 investigation payloads. This sped up the processof developing a concept.
Balaramand his team had eight weeks to submit a proposal. Working day and night, theymet the deadline with two weeks to spare.
Althoughthe helicopter idea was not selected as an instrument, it was funded fortechnology development and risk reduction. Mimi Aung became Mars Helicopter projectmanager, and after the team worked on risk reduction, NASA decided to fund thehelicopter for flight as a technology demonstration.
Buildingand Testing a Beast
Sothen the reality set in: How does one actually build a helicopter to fly onMars and get it to work?
Noeasy feat. Balaram describes it as a perfectly blank canvas, but withrestrictions. His physics background helped him envision flying on Mars, a planetwith an atmosphere that is only 1% as dense as Earth's. He compares it toflying on Earth at a 100,000-foot (30,500-meter) altitude - about seventimes higher than a typical terrestrial helicopter can fly. Another challengewas that the copter could carry only a few kilograms, including the weight ofbatteries and a radio for communications. "You can't just throw mass atit, because it needed to fly," he says.
Itdawned on Balaram that it was like building a new kind of aircraft that justhappens to be a spacecraft. And because it is a "passenger" on aflagship mission, he says, "we have to guarantee 100% that it will besafe."
Theend result: a 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) helicopter with two pairs of light counter-rotatingblades - an upper and lower pair, to slice through the Martian atmosphere. Eachpair of blades spans 4 feet (1.2 meters) in diameter.
Onceit was built, Balaram says, the question was, "How do you test this beast?There's no book saying how." Because there is no easily accessible placeon Earth with a thin atmosphere like the one on Mars, they ran tests in avacuum chamber and the 25-foot Space Simulation Chamber at JPL.
Abouttwo-and-a-half months after landing at Jezero Crater, the Mars Helicopter teamwill have a window of about 30 days to perform a technology demonstration inthe actual environment of the planet, starting with a series of vehiclecheckouts, followed by attempts of first-ever flights in the very thin Martian atmosphere.
Despitebest efforts and the best tests available on Earth, this is a high-risk,high-reward technology demonstration, with Balaram saying quite frankly, "Wecould fail."
Butif this "crazy idea" succeeds on Mars, it will be what Balaram describesas "kind of a Wright Brothers moment on another planet" - the firsttime a powered aircraft will have flown on Mars, or any planet besides Earth,for that matter. This potential breakthrough could help pave the way for futurecraft that would expand NASA's portfolio of vehicles to explore other worlds.
Andpartly because there have been so many challenges along the way, it's atestament to the dedication, vision, persistence and attitude of Balaram andhis colleagues that the Mars Helicopter concept was funded, planned, developedand built and is heading to the Red Planet this summer.
"Bob isthe inventor of our Mars Helicopter. He innovated the design and followed up onthat vision to its fruition as chief engineer through all phases of design, developmentand test," says project manager Aung. "Whenever we encountered atechnical roadblock - and we encountered many roadblocks - we always turned toBob, who always carries an inexhaustible set of potential solutions to beconsidered. Come to think of it, I don't think I have ever seen Bob feelingstuck at any point!"
The Home StretchToward Mars
Themain purpose of the Mars 2020 mission is to deliver the Perseverance rover,which will not only continue to explore the past habitability of the planet,but will actually search for signs of ancient microbial life. It will alsocache rock and soil samples for pickup by a potential future mission and helppave the way for future human exploration of Mars. Even if the helicopterencounters difficulties, the science-gathering mission of the Perseverancerover won't be affected.
Balarampoints out that in addition to the usual "seven minutes of terror" experienced by theteam on Earth during a Mars landing, once the helicopter is on Mars andattempting to fly, "This is the seven seconds of terror every time we takeoff or land."
DoesBalaram worry about all this, even a little? "There's been a crisis everysingle week of the last six years," he says. "I'm used to it."
Balaramsheds any stress that may crop up through backpacking, hiking and massage. There'salso his very supportive wife, Sandy, who bears a title within the team and herown acronym: CMO, or Chief Morale Officer. She has regularly baked cakes, piesand other goodies for Balaram to share with his colleagues for sustenanceduring the long process.
Andhe has high praise for his teammates on the Mars Helicopter project, saying thepeople attracted to it are agile and fast-moving. "It's a great team,determined to dare mighty things - that's the fun part," Balaram says. Histake on daring mighty things: "Good ideas don't die - they just take awhile."
News Media Contact
DC AgleJet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by Jane Platt
Here is the original post:
- Join the National Space Society for 'A Day in Space,' a celebration of spaceflight, this week - Space.com - July 14th, 2020
- Global Deep Space Exploration and Technology Market to Witness Huge Growth by 2025 Along with Top Keyplayers This report presents a comprehensive... - July 14th, 2020
- Space exploration is still the next frontier and it's been happening for 80 years in the military - We Are The Mighty - July 14th, 2020
- Three space missions heading to Mars, from NASA, China and UAE - ABC News - July 14th, 2020
- AI in Space Exploration Market is expected to grow at Outstanding CAGR during the forecast period from 2020 to 2025 - Cole of Duty - July 14th, 2020
- AGU 2020 Session P010: Detecting Life through Space and Time: From Geochemistry to Biology - Planetary News - July 14th, 2020
- Mars inspires a new generation of astronauts, like Alyssa Carson - Business Insider - Business Insider - July 14th, 2020
- WVU Robotic Technology Center to play crucial role in the future of in-space assembly - WBOY.com - July 14th, 2020
- Space Photonics Opportunities Abound As NASA Renews Moon And Planetary Exploration Market to Witness over XX% Growth 'in Revenue During the COVID-19... - July 14th, 2020
- Despite a Skyward Mission, NASA Shaped the Study of Life on Earth - Undark Magazine - July 14th, 2020
- NASA Perseverance rover's search for life on Mars: What you need to know - CNET - July 14th, 2020
- EAEU countries mull over joint space project - Kazinform - July 14th, 2020
- Russia Actively Developing Nuclear Propulsion System for Space Exploration - Roscosmos - UrduPoint News - July 14th, 2020
- Space Robotics - Market Research | Recent Trends and Growth Forecast 2025 - CueReport - July 14th, 2020
- UK at forefront of space exploration with biomining experiment - Mirage News - July 14th, 2020
- Deep Space Exploration and Technology Market Incredible Possibilities, Growth with Industry Study, Detailed Analysis and Forecast to 2025 -... - July 14th, 2020
- Summer on Mars: NASA's Perseverance Rover Is One of Three Missions Ready to Launch - Scientific American - July 13th, 2020
- 4 Strange Objects Discovered in Deep Space Have Astronomers Baffled - MovieWeb - July 13th, 2020
- Australia's first Aboriginal-owned ground station could be vital for space research - SBS News - July 13th, 2020
- 8 Awesome Games Based on Movies, TV Shows, and Books - Gizmodo UK - July 12th, 2020
- Moon Mining Could Begin As Early As 2025 - OilPrice.com - July 11th, 2020
- Deep Space Exploration and Technology Market: Key Players, Growth, Analysis, 20 - News by aeresearch - July 11th, 2020
- Op-ed | On the verge of a new era for space exploration? Assessing the impact of the ongoing crisis - SpaceNews - July 11th, 2020
- Spuds and space: NASA and Idaho have a long history - East Idaho News - July 11th, 2020
- 2 Tampa Bay area counties are vying to become home of the US Space Force - WTSP.com - July 11th, 2020
- From Dinosaurs to Deep Space, CuriosityStream Brings a World of Factual Entertainment to Sweden Through Its Launch on Com Hem - PRNewswire - July 11th, 2020
- Your guide to spotting the NEOWISE comet - London Free Press (Blogs) - July 10th, 2020
- UK government takes $500 million stake in space exploration firm OneWeb - The Verge - July 5th, 2020
- 4 Private Indian Rocket Companies That Will Push The Boundaries Of Space Exploration With ISRO - MensXP.com - July 5th, 2020
- NASA Renews Campus Research Center for Another Two Years | Newsroom - UC Merced University News - July 5th, 2020
- Japan to boost space cooperation with US in revised policy - WUSA9.com - July 5th, 2020
- Lunar Subsurface May Be Richer in Metals than Previously Thought | Planetary Science, Space Exploration - Sci-News.com - July 5th, 2020
- Privatisation in Space: Poor Prospects and the Inevitable Lurking Dangers - NewsClick - July 5th, 2020
- Japan to Boost Space Cooperation with US - Manufacturing Business Technology - July 5th, 2020
- Sex in Space: Can Astronauts Ever Have This Out-of-the World Experience? - News18 - July 5th, 2020
- SpaceX success has Asia startups dreaming of the stars - Nikkei Asian Review - July 5th, 2020
- We Have To Get Our Act Together: Cosmos: Possible Worlds Creator Ann Druyan On Science And Preserving Our Species - Deadline - July 5th, 2020
- Named the date of the first stage of placing of system of the Russian satellites in space - The Times Hub - July 5th, 2020
- Satellite Payload Market 2020 Size, Share, Trends with Growth and Business Strategies by 2026 |Dettwiler and Associates, honeywell International Inc,... - July 5th, 2020
- Space exploration - Wikipedia - June 23rd, 2020
- Making the future of space exploration a more inclusive one - Arizona State University - June 23rd, 2020
- Redwire Acquires Made In Space, the Leader in On-orbit Space Manufacturing Technologies - PRNewswire - June 23rd, 2020
- the rumpl NASA collection celebrates the 50th anniversary of apollo 13 - Designboom - June 23rd, 2020
- NASA seeks NH small businesses for help with its new moon mission - New Hampshire Business Review - June 23rd, 2020
- Manufacturing Out of This World - IndustryWeek - June 23rd, 2020
- Massive SLS Rocket Test: NASA to Apply Millions of Pounds of Force to Try to Break Oxygen Tank Structure - SciTechDaily - June 23rd, 2020
- Firgelli Success with Linear Actuators led to the release of the Smart Synchronized controller - PRNewswire - June 23rd, 2020
- From Elusive Mountain Lions to Majestic Fjords, CuriosityStream Goes Wild with Dozens of New and Premiere Documentary Specials from Award-winning... - June 23rd, 2020
- CMR over the moon with SpaceX executive hire - Business Weekly - June 23rd, 2020
- Luca Sorriso-Valvo: Check your space weather forecast and hide from radiation - Asgardia Space News - June 23rd, 2020
- Life support tech company helping pave way for future of space exploration - FirstCoastNews.com WTLV-WJXX - June 9th, 2020
- Space exploration is about adventure, but also responsibility - The National - June 9th, 2020
- A new era: The Space Age is making a comeback, but it's cheaper this time with SpaceX. - USA TODAY - June 9th, 2020
- WRITE TEAM: Space travel is back to once again give us faraway dreams - MyWebTimes.com - June 9th, 2020
- The 'Mars Underground': How a Rag-Tag Group of Students Helped Spark a Return to the Red Planet - Discover Magazine - June 9th, 2020
- Xplore To Host Space For Humanity Payload On Its First Moon Mission - SpaceWatch.Global - June 9th, 2020
- Timken has spot on NASAs next space telescope - The-review - June 9th, 2020
- Cal Poly Partnership with Air Force Research Laboratory Will Direct $2.5 Million to Aerospace Engineering Department - Cal Poly San Luis Obispo News - June 9th, 2020
- A group of enthusiasts has annotated the assembly code for the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon - Neowin - June 9th, 2020
- National Youth Science Camp is online this year, instead of in W.Va. hills - WV MetroNews - West Virginia MetroNews - June 9th, 2020
- ISRO Working On Eliminating Space Debris In Collaboration With ARIES - Gizbot - June 9th, 2020
- 2020 New Momentum of the Space Age, Humanity, and Asgardia - Asgardia Space News - June 9th, 2020
- Emerging Space opportunities in India - Geospatial World - June 9th, 2020
- Space Exploration: Stocks and ETFs to Watch - The Motley Fool Canada - June 9th, 2020
- Stay Home, Watch Horror: 5 Deep Space Horror Movies to Stream This Week - Bloody Disgusting - June 9th, 2020
- Physicists Solve the Mystery of the Light-Speed Cyclist - Popular Mechanics - June 9th, 2020
- ISRO signs MoU with ARIES for cooperation in Space Situational Awareness, Astrophysics - Economic Times - June 9th, 2020
- The Dangers of Space, Military Rivals and Other New Books to Read - Smithsonian.com - June 9th, 2020
- Ethics of Space Exploration: Exploring to Sustain? - EuroScientist - May 19th, 2020
- Struggling with isolation? Astronauts have been there, done that - The Detroit News - May 19th, 2020
- 'Kerbal Space Program' teams up with European Space Agency for 'Shared Horizons' expansion - Space.com - May 19th, 2020
- They Came From Earth IP Rights in Outer Space - JD Supra - May 19th, 2020
- The food and water systems astronauts will need to travel to places like Mars - Horizon magazine - May 19th, 2020
- NASA moves to resume SLS testing 'Next great era of space exploration' still on horizon - Yellowhammer News - May 19th, 2020
- Covid 19 Pandemic: AI in Space Exploration Market Analysis with Market Size, Industry Share, trends and Forecast to 2025 - News Distinct - May 19th, 2020
- Indian space sector reforms: Will it be a big bang approach? - Outlook India - May 19th, 2020
- Isaac Asimov: 'How We'll Live on the Moon' - Popular Mechanics - May 19th, 2020
- Space Mining Market To See Strong Growth and Business Scope During 2019 to 2027 | Key Players: Deep Space Industries, Planetary Resources, SpaceFab,... - May 19th, 2020
- Behind the HYPE: How Hasselblad Became the Camera for Space Exploration - HYPEBEAST - May 19th, 2020
- $ 260 billion will be invested in space exploration in the coming years - Checkersaga - May 19th, 2020