Plum Canyon resident on leading the first helicopter to Mars

Plum Canyon resident Timothy Canham works on Ingenuity helicopter with his team at NASA. PHOTOS COURTESY NASA

It was a defining moment for Plum Canyon resident Timothy Canham as he stood before a large crowd, pre-COVID-19, attempting to demonstrate that the prototype vehicle he and his team built could fly.

It wasn’t just any kind of vehicle, however. It was a paradigm for what would later become the traveling companion of NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, the Ingenuity helicopter, which ended up working after the rover landed on the Red Planet on Feb. 18.

“We had to successfully fly it or we wouldn’t have gotten on the rover. We had to demonstrate that we could fly freely and, so, we had just one vehicle that we had built to prove it,” said Canham, a senior software engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Mars Helicopter operations lead.

Described by NASA and aerospace engineers from the project as the “most sophisticated rover” ever sent by the federal government to Mars, the agency confirmed Perseverance had successfully touched down at 12:55 p.m. It marked the nation’s sixth successful rover landing on Mars.

“If we had flown it and something had gone wrong and the project would have crashed, it would’ve probably been over because we wouldn’t have had time to rebuild and retest another one,” he added.

The COVID-19 pandemic would shift the way JPL teams would operate, shifting from in-person lab operations filled with “spontaneous” moments, as Canham described it, to hours upon hours on virtual meetups.

“It’s been, usually, beginning the day and ending the day with WebEx meetings. We’ve had to make it work, we had to learn new patterns of interacting remotely,” he said. “It’s been a challenge because the JPL culture is, we’re very social people. A lot happens when you just walk over to somebody’s office spontaneously or you meet them in the hallway or at the cafeteria, and you just say, ‘Oh yeah, I was thinking through something.’ You have these spontaneous conversations and you have these impromptu collaborations just because you run into somebody.”

Thankfully, Canham and his team managed to complete the Ingenuity helicopter and deliver it in January 2020 — just in time before the statewide lockdown took place two months thereafter — to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida where the launch took place on July 30 last year.

“It’s been more of a challenge because after we delivered the helicopter we entered the space where we had to arrange a bunch of software and develop a lot of plans for operating the helicopter,” said Canham. “We’ve done all of that remotely. I haven’t seen some of my teammates for a year.”

Ingenuity Mars Helicopter

Canham started on the project in the summer of 2015, building only a prototype “just to test the basics,” he said. The core team would consist of up to 20 people, with a smaller group he led with about four people.

“A year or two before I came on, there was testing going on with a miniature helicopter that could probably sit on the palm of your hands to try some basic experiments with it,” he said. “That’s when the project was conceived and then it entered its more formal testing phase in 2015 and 2016, and then we were finally selected onto the rover, for flight in 2017.”

Today, the helicopter doesn’t necessarily fit in your hand but it is still quite small. Canham describes it as a small box with two blades on it that spin in opposite directions.

“It stands about as high as your knee and it only weighs about 4lbs, 1.7 grams because it’s very light carbon fiber,” he said.

The helicopter, which hitched a ride to Mars via the belly of the Perseverance rover, is a technology demonstration to test the first powered flight on Red Planet, according to NASA.

“Once the team finds a suitable ‘helipad’ location, the rover will release Ingenuity to perform a series of test flights over a 30-Martian-day experimental window beginning sometime in the spring,” read NASA’s website on the helicopter.

Since the landing of the rover last month, Canham and his team have focused on keeping Ingenuity well-maintained “because while it’s strapped to the bottom of the rover, we still have to keep the battery charged up to keep the batteries healthy, and also doing a lot of work planning the activities and writing software for processing the data on the ground.”

The first flight, which Canham said could be within the next three to four weeks, is expected to consist of the helicopter taking off a few feet from the ground and hovering for up to a half-minute before landing.

“That will be a major milestone: the very first powered flight in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars,” said Nasa, adding that the additional flights with farther and higher distances so that Perseverance can continue its scientific mission.

The rover’s mission for the immediate future, according to NASA, is to collect rock and sediment samples, search for ancient microbial life and learn more about the geology and climate of Mars.

The landing

This rover landing in February was unlike any other in many aspects, according to Canham.

For one, the celebratory party was a little different.

“Since everybody is remote, we had a virtual landing party. We just got on with the virtual conferencing tool and we really had a big WebEx party with 50 or 60 people who’ve been involved in the project over the years, and we watched the lived feed like everybody else and cheered and it was very exciting because, obviously, getting to the surface is quite important,” he said.

It’s been a long time coming, but worth it, Canham added.

“Obviously, we’re very nervous because it’s never been done, but you don’t learn things unless you step out and try them,” he said. “It’s very exciting to be part of the first-time effort like this, doing something that nobody has ever done before and trying to develop new methods of flying and miniaturizing the technology.” 

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