Mars helicopter bound for the Red Planet takes to the air for the first time

The Mars 2020 mission is on track for launch next year, and nesting inside the high-tech new rover heading that direction is a high-tech helicopter designed to fly in the planet’s nearly non-existent atmosphere. The actual aircraft that will fly on the Martian surface just took its first flight and its engineers are over the moon.

“The next time we fly, we fly on Mars,” said MiMi Aung, who manages the project at JPL, in a news release. An engineering model that was very close to final has over an hour of time in the air, but these two brief test flights were the first and last time the tiny craft will take flight until it does so on the distant planet (not counting its “flight” during launch).

“Watching our helicopter go through its paces in the chamber, I couldn’t help but think about the historic vehicles that have been in there in the past,” she continued. “The chamber hosted missions from the Ranger Moon probes to the Voyagers to Cassini, and every Mars rover ever flown. To see our helicopter in there reminded me we are on our way to making a little chunk of space history as well.”

Artist’s impression of how the helicopter will look when it’s flying on Mars.

A helicopter flying on Mars is much like a helicopter flying on Earth, except of course for the slight differences that the other planet has a third less gravity and 99 percent less air. It’s more like flying at 100,000 feet, Aung suggested.

It has its own solar panel so it can explore more or less on its own.

The test rig they set up not only produces a near-vacuum, replacing the air with a thin, Mars-esque CO2 mix, but a “gravity offload” system simulates lower gravity by giving the helicopter a slight lift via a cable.

It flew at a whopping 2 inches of altitude for a total of a minute in two tests, which was enough to show the team that the craft (with all its 1,500 parts and four pounds) was ready to package up and send to the Red Planet.

“It was a heck of a first flight,” said tester Teddy Tzanetos. “The gravity offload system performed perfectly, just like our helicopter. We only required a 2-inch hover to obtain all the data sets needed to confirm that our Mars helicopter flies autonomously as designed in a thin Mars-like atmosphere; there was no need to go higher.”

A few months the Mars 2020 rover has landed, the helicopter will detach and do a few test flights of up to 90 seconds. Those will be the first heavier-than-air flights on another planet — powered flight, in other words, rather than, say, a balloon filled with gaseous hydrogen.

The craft will operate mostly autonomously, since the half-hour round trip for commands would be far too long for an Earth-based pilot to operate it. It has its own solar cells and batteries, plus little landing feet, and will attempt flights of increasing distance from the rover over a 30-day period. It should go about three meters in the air and may eventually get hundreds of meters away from its partner.

Mars 2020 is estimated to be ready to launch next summer, arriving at its destination early in 2021. Of course in the meantime we’ve still got Curiosity and Insight up there, so if you want the latest from Mars, you’ve got plenty of options to choose from.

Gadgets – TechCrunch

Canon takes on Fuji with new instant-print CLIQ cameras

Instant print cameras have been popular for a long, long time, but they’re seeing a renaissance now — led by Fujifilm, whose Instax mini-films and cameras lead the pack. But Canon wants in, and has debuted a pair of new cameras to challenge Fuji’s dominance — but their reliance on digital printing may hold them back.

The cameras have confusing, nonsensical names in both the U.S. and Europe: Here, they’re the IVY CLIQ and CLIQ+, while across the pond it’s the Zoemini C and S. Really now, Canon! But the devices themselves are extremely simple, especially if you ignore the cheaper one, which you absolutely should do.

The compact CLIQ+ has a whole 8 megapixels on its tiny sensor, but that’s more than enough to send to the 2×3″ Zink printer built into the camera. The printer can store up to ten sheets of paper at once, and spits them out in seconds if you’re in a hurry, or whenever you feel like it if you want to tweak them, add borders, crop or do duplicates, and so on. That’s all done in a companion app.

And herein lies the problem: Zink prints just aren’t that good. They cost less than half of what Instax Mini do per shot (think a quarter or so if you buy a lot) — but the difference in quality is visible. They’ve gotten better since the early days when they were truly bad, but the resolution and color reproduction just isn’t up to instant film standards. Instax may not be perfect, but a good shot will get very nice color and very natural-looking (if not tack-sharp) details.

The trend towards instant printing is also at least partly a trend towards the purely mechanical and analog. People tired of taking a dozen shots on their phone and then never looking at them again are excited by the idea that you can leave your phone in your bag and get a fun photographic keepsake, no apps or wireless connections necessary.

A digital camera with a digital printer that connects wirelessly to an app on your smartphone may not be capable of capitalizing on this trend. But then again, they could be a great cheap option for the younger digital-native set and kids who don’t care about image quality, have no affinity for analog tech, and just want to print stickers for their friends or add memes to their shots.

Oh, we do have fun, don’t we, fellow kids?

The $ 160 CLIQ+, or Zoemini S, has a ring flash as well as the higher megapixel count of the two (8 vs 5), and the lower-end $ 100 model doesn’t support the app, either. Given the limitations of the sensor and printer, you’re going to want as much flash as you can get. That’s too bad, because the cheap one comes in a dandy yellow color that is by far the most appealing to me.

The cameras should be available in a month or two at your local retailer or online shop.

Gadgets – TechCrunch