MiMi Aung, Creator of the Ingenuity Helicopter That Flies on Mars

MiMi Aung, Creator of the Ingenuity Helicopter That Flies on Mars

A female face behind the small helicopter's first flight to Mars.

A female face behind the small helicopter's first flight to Mars.

On Monday, April 19, 2021, the Ingenuity helicopter team attempted the first controlled and motorized flight on another planet. "We are optimistic that the helicopter will be able to take off from the Martian surface at this time; however, this is a test and we are prepared that it may not occur," wrote MiMi Aung in the Official Web Portal of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Science – Mars Helicopter Technical Demonstration.

Over the past week, the two solutions were tested to address the "guardian" timer problem that prevented the helicopter from going into "flight mode" and conducting a high-speed rotor turn test on April 9. According to NASA's Mars these solutions, which have been verified for in-flight use are:

1. "Adjusting the command sequence from Earth to slightly alter the timing of this transition."

2. "Modifying and reinstalling the existing flight control software, which has been stable and healthy for close to two years."

On the other hand, the first solution would require adding some commands to the flight operations sequence and has been tested on both Earth and Mars. After testing this technique at Ingenuity over the past few days, it was known that this approach was likely to make the transition to flight mode and prepare for takeoff approximately 85% of the time. This solution left the helicopter safe if the transition to flight mode was not completed.

MiMi Aung Experience at NASA

According to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Web Portal, MiMi Aung is the project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, where she leads the project to develop a demonstration of helicopter technology on Mars. Since joining JPL in 1990, she has played various roles in multiple disciplines in deep spaceflight and Deep Space Network (DSN) projects, technology development, and line management.


It began in the development of DSN of its first operational digital receiver system, the Block V receiver. Developed, analyzed, and tested receiver algorithms, and continued to work from implementation to operationalization in the three DSN complexes worldwide. Subsequently, she led a multidisciplinary team to assess the applicability of the monopulse technique for the precise orientation of antennas 34 meters in diameter, leading to operational use in the DSN.

On the other hand, she became project element manager for the autonomous training flight sensor in the interferometer mission of two StarLight spacecraft, where she applied her knowledge of transmission/reception systems to determining the range between spacecraft and measuring the course for flight in precise training of multiple spacecraft.

Finally, in 2013 she became deputy director of the Autonomous Systems Division responsible for the GN&C spacecraft, energy, avionics, flight software, and robotics. Since 2015, she has led the development of the Mars Helicopter technology demonstration.

From Northern California (Kitty Hawk) to Mars

According to Steven Gorman of the Reuters medium, NASA compared the achievement to the Wright brothers' first controlled flight of their motor plane near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December 1903: a takeoff and landing that covered only 120 feet (37 meters) in 12 seconds.

In this sense, the first images included a still black-and-white photo taken by an onboard camera pointing downwards while the helicopter was in the air, showing the distinctive shadow cast by Ingenuity in the Martian sunlight above the ground below it. A separate perseverance-mounted camera, parked about 200 feet away, captured a video of the aircraft's full flight against the surrounding candy-colored landscape.

In honor of the modest but monumental first human flight 117 years ago at Kitty Hawk, NASA officially designated the Ingenuity flight zone as Wright Brothers Field, a location recognized by the International Civil Aviation Organization on a certificate issued to NASA for the occasion.

The Journey of the Little Helicopter

The small helicopter traveled to the Red Planet strapped to the belly of Perseverance, a six-wheeled astrobiology laboratory that landed in Jezero Crater on February 18 after a nearly seven-month journey through space. However, NASA officials were less than sentimental about the fate facing their beloved Martian whirlpool. JPL plans to push the plane to the limit with four more flights going further, faster and higher over the next two weeks, according to Steven Gorman of the Reuters medium.

"Building a helicopter to fly on Mars was a difficult task for the JPL. That's why we're going to go further," Aung said, "and ultimately we expect the helicopter to reach its limits."

Moreover, the design was successfully tested in vacuum chambers that simulated Martian conditions, but the concept was not tested until Ingenuity took off on Monday on the fourth planet from the sun, due to the enormous distances involved, Ingenuity was designed to execute pre-programmed flight instructions autonomously, using advanced navigation and pilot systems on board.

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