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Mars helicopter flight test promises Wright Brothers moment for NASA

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NASA hopes to score a 21st-century Wright Brothers moment today (19 April) as it attempts to send a miniature helicopter buzzing over the surface of Mars in what would be the first powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet, writes Steve Gorman.

Landmark achievements in science and technology can seem humble by conventional measurements. The Wright Brothers' first controlled flight in the world of a motor-driven airplane, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903 covered just 120 feet (37 meters) in 12 seconds.

A modest debut is likewise in store for NASA's twin-rotor, solar-powered helicopter Ingenuity.

If all goes to plan, the 4-pound (1.8-kg) whirligig will slowly ascend straight up to an altitude of 10 feet (3 meters) above the Martian surface, hover in place for 30 seconds, then rotate before descending to a gentle landing on all four legs.

While the mere metrics may seem less than ambitious, the "air field" for the interplanetary test flight is 173 million miles from Earth, on the floor of a vast Martian basin called Jezero Crater. Success hinges on Ingenuity executing the pre-programmed flight instructions using an autonomous pilot and navigation system.

"The moment our team has been waiting for is almost here," Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung said at a recent briefing at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles.

NASA itself is likening the experiment to the Wright Brothers' feat 117 years ago, paying tribute to that modest but monumental first flight by having affixed a tiny swath of wing fabric from the original Wright flyer under Ingenuity's solar panel.

The robot rotorcraft was carried to the red planet strapped to the belly of NASA's Mars rover Perseverance, a mobile astrobiology lab that touched down on Feb. 18 in Jezero Crater after a nearly seven-month journey through space.

Although Ingenuity's flight test is set to begin around 3:30 a.m. Eastern Time on Monday (0730 GMT Monday), data confirming its outcome is not expected to reach JPL's mission control until around 6:15 a.m. ET on Monday.

NASA also expects to receive images and video of the flight that mission engineers hope to capture using cameras mounted on the helicopter and the Perseverance rover, which will be parked 250 feet (76 meters) away from Ingenuity's flight zone.

If the test succeeds, Ingenuity will undertake several additional, lengthier flights in the weeks ahead, though it will need to rest four to five days in between each to recharge its batteries. Prospects for future flights rest largely on a safe, four-point touchdown the first time.

"It doesn't have a self-righting system, so if we do have a bad landing, that will be the end of the mission," Aung said. An unexpectedly strong wind gust is one potential peril that could spoil the flight.

NASA hopes Ingenuity - a technology demonstration separate from Perseverance's primary mission to search for traces of ancient microorganisms - paves the way for aerial surveillance of Mars and other destinations in the solar system, such as Venus or Saturn's moon Titan.

While Mars possesses much less gravity to overcome than Earth, its atmosphere is just 1% as dense, presenting a special challenge for aerodynamic lift. To compensate, engineers equipped Ingenuity with rotor blades that are larger (4-feet-long) and spin more rapidly than would be needed on Earth for an aircraft of its size.

The design was successfully tested in vacuum chambers built at JPL to simulate Martian conditions, but it remains to be seen whether Ingenuity will fly on the red planet.

The small, lightweight aircraft already passed an early crucial test by demonstrating it could withstand punishing cold, with nighttime temperatures dropping as low as 130 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius), using solar power alone to recharge and keep internal components properly heated.

The planned flight was delayed for a week by a technical glitch during a test spin of the aircraft’s rotors on 9 April. NASA said that issue has since been resolved.

EU

EU Space Programme 2021-2027 ready for take off

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The Socialists and Democrats gave their full support to the European Union Space Programme 2021-2027, as it was adopted late 27 April evening in plenary. The programme will provide €14.88 billion in funding to modules such as Galileo, Copernicus, SSA (Space and Situational Awareness) and GOVSATCOM (Governmental Satellite Communication Initiative), and will also ensure that these are continued after 2027.

During negotiations, the S&Ds managed to add targets on climate spending and biodiversity, and also to achieve a clear framework for the participation of third countries.
 
Carlos Zorrinho MEP, S&D negotiator on the file, said: “The European Space Programme 2021-2027, adopted by the European Parliament, will provide the European Union in particular, and humanity in general, with fundamental tools to better understand and more effectively protect the planet on which we live. It will help guarantee biodiversity, combat climate change and participate in global networks for the exploration and management of space, all for the common good.

“For this seven-year period, a budget of €14.88 billion was agreed. Unfortunately this represents a cut from the Parliament’s original position, but luckily some flexibility will remain in order to allow the European Commission to finance new projects. Furthermore, the continuity of services under this programme is assured and safeguarded even after 2027 and the European Parliament will be kept fully informed in all matters pertaining to governance.”
 
Dan Nica MEP, S&D spokesman on research and innovation, said: “It is our duty to always keep an eye on the future when creating policies and endorsing programmes in the European Parliament. The European Space Programme is the embodiment of this guiding principle: we are, today, building for the future. There will be a time when the pandemic will have passed, and with investment in research and innovation Europe will be a truly competitive player on the global stage.

“The Socialists and Democrats fully support the Space Programme and the investments in space technology, data and services. Technology plays an important role in preserving European strategic interests and enhancing Europe’s resilience.”

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European Council

Council adopts position on €14.8 billion EU space programme for 2021-2027

EU Reporter Correspondent

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The Council has adopted its first reading position on the proposed regulation establishing the EU space programme ( “the programme”) for the years 2021 to 2027. This follows up on a deal reached last December with the European Parliament that paves the way for the swift adoption of the draft regulation at second reading.

The EU relies on space activities as drivers of sustainable economic growth and security. Our new EU space programme will enable us to remain competitive in the New Space economy and to preserve the EU’s space sovereignty. It will boost our economic recovery from the pandemic and our transition towards a green and digital economic model.

The regulation will ensure:

  • High-quality, up-to-date and secure space-related data and services;
  • greater socio-economic benefits from the use of such data and services, such as increased growth and job creation in the EU;
  • enhanced security and autonomy of the EU;
  • a stronger role for the EU as a leading actor in the space sector.

It will achieve this by:

  • Simplifying and streamlining the existing EU legal framework on space policy;
  • providing the EU with an adequate space budget to continue and improve on existing space flagship programmes such as EGNOS, Galileo and Copernicus, as well as monitor space hazards under the ‘space situational awareness' component (SSA) and cater for access to secure satellite communications for national authorities (GOVSATCOM);
  • establishing the rules for governance of the EU space programme;
  • standardising the security framework of the space programme.

    Next steps

In line with the political agreement reached last December between the co-legislators, the European Parliament is expected to approve the Council’s position at first reading in April 2021. The regulation will then be deemed to have been formally adopted. It will apply retroactively from 1 January 2021.

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Space

Space: Galileo provides a new exclusive function – the Return Link Service

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6 April was the International Search and Rescue Beacon day or “406 Day”, a day intended to remind Search and Rescue 406MHz beacon owners to test their beacons, check the batteries and update their registration. On this day, the Commission together with its partners (the European GNSS Agency (GSA), the European Space Agency (ESA), amongst others) is proud to celebrate the European contribution to this international effort by installing distress-alert receivers onboard the Galileo satellites.

This allows delivering unprecedented speed of detection of distress signals and accuracy in locating the position of the person in distress. Commissioner Thierry Breton, in charge of the Internal Market, said: "Through its satellites for distress-alert detection and location, Galileo contributes to search and rescue operations around the globe. It is a great European achievement that shows that Europe is not only an important space power, but also an actor continuously working for people's well-being."

Galileo is now providing a new Return Link Service function. This unique feature provides the user in distress with an acknowledgement indication on the beacon that the distress signal from the beacon was received and its position located. In just over a year since its first introduction, the Galileo Return Link feature has been endorsed by the Cospas-Sarsat Council in March 2021 as having achieved the transition to Full Operational Capacity, and is available worldwide.

On this occasion, the Commission sent invitations to more than 250 operational Search And Rescue units to collect their views and their expectations, so that the Next Developments of Galileo/SAR will match their operational needs as closely as possible, to save even more lives in the future. For more information, please read this news item.

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