Helicopter’s chief engineer Bob Balaram and the Mars Helicopter on a
test stand. The technology demonstration will ride aboard NASA’s
Perseverance rover to the Red Planet. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Written by Jane Platt Jet
Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Even before this interviewer can
finish the question, “Did anyone ever tell you this 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
the Red Planet on the Mars Perseverance rover this summer.
Although Balaram probably didn’t
know it at the time, the seed for an idea like this sprouted 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 and space
exploration. The bulging envelope they sent back, stuffed with glossy
booklets, entranced young Bob. His interest in space was piqued further
by listening to the Moon landing on the radio. “I gobbled it up,” he
says. “Long before the internet, the U.S. had good outreach. You had my
(Left to right) Mars Helicopter assembly, test, launch operations
interface lead Teddy Tzanetos, project manager MiMi Aung and chief
engineer Bob Balaram observe a flight test on Jan. 18, 2019, as the
flight model of the Mars Helicopter was tested in the 25-foot-wide
vacuum chamber at JPL. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
His active brain and fertile
imagination focused on getting an education, which would lead him to a
bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Indian Institute of
Technology, a master’s and Ph.D. in computer and systems engineering
from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a career at NASA’s Jet
Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. That’s where he has
remained for 35 years as a robotics technologist.
Balaram’s career has encompassed
robotic arms, early Mars rovers, technology for a notional balloon
mission to explore Venus and a stint as lead for the Mars Science
Laboratory entry, descent and landing simulation software.
Cutting through obstacles, red tape and the Martian atmosphere
As with many innovative ideas, it
took a village to make the helicopter happen. In the 1990s, Balaram
attended a professional conference where Stanford professor Ilan Kroo
spoke about a “mesicopter,” a miniature airborne vehicle for Earth
applications that was funded as a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts
This led Balaram to think about
using one on Mars. He suggested a joint proposal with 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 a blade-rotor test under Mars conditions at JPL. Other than
that, the idea “sat on a shelf” for 15 years.
Fast forward to a conference where
the University of Pennsylvania presented about the use of drones and
helicopters. Charles Elachi, then director of JPL, attended that
session. When he returned to JPL, he asked whether something like this
could be used on Mars. A colleague of Balaram’s mentioned his previous
work in that area of research. Balaram dusted off that proposal, and
Elachi asked him to write a new one for the competitive call for Mars
2020 investigation payloads. This sped up the process of developing a
image of the flight model of NASA’s Mars Helicopter was taken on Feb.
14, 2019, in a cleanroom at JPL. The aluminum base plate, side posts and
crossbeam around the helicopter protect its landing legs and the
attachment points that will hold it to the belly of the Mars 2020 rover.
Balaram and his team had eight
weeks to submit a proposal. Working day and night, they met the deadline
with two weeks to spare.
Although the helicopter idea was
not selected as an instrument, it was funded for technology development
and risk reduction. Mimi Aung became Mars Helicopter project manager,
and after the team worked on risk reduction, NASA decided to fund the
helicopter for flight as a technology demonstration.
Building and testing a beast
So then the reality set in: How
does one actually build a helicopter to fly on Mars and get it to work?
No easy feat. Balaram describes it
as a perfectly blank canvas, but with restrictions. His physics
background helped him envision flying on Mars, a planet with an
atmosphere that is only 1% as dense as Earth’s. He compares it to flying
on Earth at a 100,000-foot (30,500-meter) altitude — about seven times
higher than a typical terrestrial helicopter can fly. Another challenge
was that the copter could carry only a few kilograms, including the
weight of batteries and a radio for communications. “You can’t just
throw mass at it, because it needed to fly,” he says.
It dawned on Balaram that it was
like building a new kind of aircraft that just happens to be a
spacecraft. And because it is a “passenger” on a flagship mission, he
says, “we have to guarantee 100% that it will be safe.”
The end result: a 4-pound
(1.8-kilogram) helicopter with two pairs of light counter-rotating
blades — an upper and lower pair, to slice through the Martian
atmosphere. Each pair of blades spans 4 feet (1.2 meters) in diameter.
Once it 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 place on Earth with a thin
atmosphere like the one on Mars, they ran tests in a vacuum chamber and
the 25-foot Space Simulation Chamber at JPL.
About two-and-a-half months after
landing at Jezero Crater, the Mars Helicopter team will have a window of
about 30 days to perform a technology demonstration in the actual
environment of the planet, starting with a series of vehicle checkouts,
followed by attempts of first-ever flights in the very thin Martian
Despite best efforts and the best
tests available on Earth, this is a high-risk, high-reward technology
demonstration, with Balaram saying quite frankly, “We could fail.”
But if this “crazy idea” succeeds
on Mars, it will be what Balaram describes as “kind of a Wright Brothers
moment on another planet” — the first time 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 future craft that
would expand NASA’s portfolio of vehicles to explore other worlds.
And partly because there have been
so many challenges along the way, it’s a testament to the dedication,
vision, persistence and attitude of Balaram and his colleagues that the
Mars Helicopter concept was funded, planned, developed and built and is
heading to the Red Planet this summer.
“Bob is the inventor of our Mars
Helicopter. He innovated the design and followed up on that vision to
its fruition as chief engineer through all phases of design, development
and test,” says project manager Aung. “Whenever we encountered a
technical roadblock — and we encountered many roadblocks — we always
turned to Bob, who always carries an inexhaustible set of potential
solutions to be considered. Come to think of it, I don’t think I have
ever seen Bob feeling stuck at any point!”
The home stretch toward Mars
The main 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 also cache
rock and soil samples for pickup by a potential future mission and help
pave the way for future human exploration of Mars. Even if the
helicopter encounters difficulties, the science-gathering mission of the
Perseverance rover won’t be affected.
Balaram points out that in addition
to the usual “seven minutes of terror” experienced by the team on Earth
during a Mars landing, once the helicopter is on Mars and attempting to
fly, “This is the seven seconds of terror every time we take off or
Does Balaram worry about all this,
even a little? “There’s been a crisis every single week of the last six
years,” he says. “I’m used to it.”
Balaram sheds any stress that may
crop up through backpacking, hiking and massage. There’s also his very
supportive wife, Sandy, who bears a title within the team and her own
acronym: CMO, or Chief Morale Officer. She has regularly baked cakes,
pies and other goodies for Balaram to share with his colleagues for
sustenance during the long process.
And he has high praise for his
teammates on the Mars Helicopter project, saying the people 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. His take on daring
mighty things: “Good ideas don’t die — they just take a while.”
Adapted from a Twitter Thread by NASA astronaut Anne McClain
One thing astronauts have to be good at: living in
confined spaces for long periods of time. Here are some tips for all who
find yourself in a similar scenario.
Nearly 20 years successfully living
on the International Space Station and more than 50 flying in space did
not happen by accident. NASA astronauts and psychologists have examined
what human behaviors create a healthy culture for living and working
remotely in small groups. They narrowed it to five general skills and
defined the associated behaviors for each skill. NASA astronauts call it
“Expeditionary Behavior,” and they are part of everything we do. When it
goes well, it’s called “good EB.”
Here are the five good
expeditionary behavior skills.
Skill 1, Communication
Communication means to talk so you are clearly understood. To listen,
and question to understand. Actively listen, pick up on non-verbal cues.
Identify, discuss, then work to resolve conflict.
To practice good Communication EB,
share information and feelings freely. Talk about your intentions before
taking action. Use proper terminology. Discuss when your or others’
actions were not as expected. Take time to debrief after success or
conflict. Listen, then restate messages to ensure they are understood.
Admit when you are wrong.
Skill 2, Leadership/Followership
How well a team adapts to changed situations. A leader enhances the
group’s ability to execute its purpose through positive influence. A
follower (aka a subordinate leader) actively contributes to the leader’s
direction. Establish an environment of trust.
To practice good Leadership/Followership
EB, accept responsibility. Adjust your style to your environment. Assign
tasks and set goals. Lead by example. Give direction, information,
feedback, coaching and encouragement. Ensure your teammates have
resources. Talk when something isn’t right. Ask questions. Offer
solutions, not just problems.
Skill 3, Self-Care
Self-Care means keeping track of how healthy you are on psychological
and physical levels. It includes hygiene, managing your time and your
stuff, getting sleep, and maintaining your mood. Through self-care, you
demonstrate your ability to be proactive to stay healthy.
To practice good Self-Care EB,
realistically assess your own strengths and weaknesses, and their
influence on the group. Learn from mistakes. Identify personal
tendencies and their influence on your success or failure. Be open about
your weaknesses and feelings. Take action to mitigate your own stress or
negativity (don’t pass it on to the group). Be social. Seek feedback.
Balance work, rest, and personal time. Be organized.
Skill 4, Team Care
Team Care is how healthy the group is on psychological, physical and
logistical levels. Recognize that this can be influenced by stress,
fatigue, sickness, supplies, resources, workload, etc. Nurture optimal
team performance despite challenges.
To practice good Team Care EB,
demonstrate patience and respect. Encourage others. Monitor your team
for signs of stress or fatigue. Encourage participation in team
activities. Develop positive relationships. Volunteer for the unpleasant
tasks. Offer and accept help. Share credit; take the blame.
Skill 5, Group Living
Group Living skills are how people cooperate and become a team to
achieve a goal. Identify and manage different opinions, cultures,
perceptions, skills and personalities. Demonstrate resilience in the
face of difficulty.
To practice good Group Living EB,
cooperate rather than compete. Actively cultivate group culture (use
each individual’s culture to build the whole). Respect roles,
responsibilities and workload. Take accountability; give praise freely.
Then work to ensure a positive team attitude. Keep calm in conflict.
You can be successful in
confinement if you are intentional about your actions and deliberate
about caring for your team. When we work together, we will continue to
This is an illustration of a distant galaxy with
an active quasar at its center. A quasar emits exceptionally large amounts
of energy generated by a supermassive black hole fueled by infalling matter.
Using the unique capabilities of the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers
have discovered that blistering radiation pressure from the vicinity of the
black hole pushes material away from the galaxy’s center at a fraction of
the speed of light. The “quasar winds” are propelling hundreds of solar
masses of material each year. This affects the entire galaxy as the material
snowplows into surrounding gas and dust. Credits: NASA, ESA and J. Olmsted (STScI)
Writing credits below
NASA, March 20, 2020 -
Using the unique capabilities of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, a team of
astronomers has discovered the most energetic outflows ever witnessed in the
universe. They emanate from quasars and tear across interstellar space like
tsunamis, wreaking havoc on the galaxies in which the quasars live.
Quasars are extremely remote celestial
objects, emitting exceptionally large amounts of energy. Quasars contain
supermassive black holes fueled by infalling matter that can shine 1,000
times brighter than their host galaxies of hundreds of billions of stars.
As the black hole devours matter, hot
gas encircles it and emits intense radiation, creating the quasar. Winds,
driven by blistering radiation pressure from the vicinity of the black hole,
push material away from the galaxy’s center. These outflows accelerate to
breathtaking velocities that are a few percent of the speed of light.
“No other phenomena carries more
mechanical energy. Over the lifetime of 10 million years, these outflows
produce a million times more energy than a gamma-ray burst,” explained
principal investigator Nahum Arav of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.
“The winds are pushing hundreds of solar masses of material each year. The
amount of mechanical energy that these outflows carry is up to several
hundreds of times higher than the luminosity of the entire Milky Way
The quasar winds snowplow across the
galaxy’s disk. Material that otherwise would have formed new stars is
violently swept from the galaxy, causing star birth to cease. Radiation
pushes the gas and dust to far greater distances than scientists previously
thought, creating a galaxy-wide event.
As this cosmic tsunami slams into
interstellar material, the temperature at the shock front spikes to billions
of degrees, where material glows largely in X-rays, but also widely across
the light spectrum. Anyone witnessing this event would see a brilliant
celestial display. “You’ll get lots of radiation first in X-rays and gamma
rays, and afterwards it will percolate to visible and infrared light,” said
Arav. “You’d get a huge light show—like Christmas trees all over the
Numerical simulations of galaxy
evolution suggest that such outflows can explain some important cosmological
puzzles, such as why astronomers observe so few large galaxies in the
universe, and why there is a relationship between the mass of the galaxy and
the mass of its central black hole. This study shows that such powerful
quasar outflows should be prevalent in the early universe.
“Both theoreticians and observers have
known for decades that there is some physical process that shuts off star
formation in massive galaxies, but the nature of that process has been a
mystery. Putting the observed outflows into our simulations solves these
outstanding problems in galactic evolution,” explained eminent cosmologist
Jeremiah P. Ostriker of Columbia University in New York and Princeton
University in New Jersey.
Astronomers studied 13 quasar outflows,
and they were able to clock the breakneck speed of gas being accelerated by
the quasar wind by looking at spectral “fingerprints” of light from the
glowing gas. The Hubble ultraviolet data show that these light absorption
features created from material along the path of the light were shifted in
the spectrum because of the fast motion of the gas across space. This is due
to the Doppler effect, where the motion of an object compresses or stretches
wavelengths of light depending on whether it is approaching or receding from
us. Only Hubble has the specific range of ultraviolet sensitivity that
allows for astronomers to obtain the necessary observations leading to this
Aside from measuring the most energetic
quasars ever observed, the team also discovered another outflow accelerating
faster than any other. It increased from nearly 43 million miles per hour to
roughly 46 million miles per hour in a three-year period. The scientists
believe its acceleration will continue to increase over time.
“Hubble’s ultraviolet observations
allow us to follow the whole range of energy output from quasars, from
cooler gas to the extremely hot, highly ionized gas in the more massive
winds,” added team member Gerard Kriss of the Space Telescope Science
Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. “These were previously only visible with
much more difficult X-ray observations. Such powerful outflows may yield new
insights into the link between the growth of a central supermassive black
hole and the development of its entire host galaxy.”
The team also includes graduate student
Xinfeng Xu and postdoctoral researcher Timothy Miller, both of Virginia
Tech, as well as Rachel Plesha of the Space Telescope Science Institute. The
findings were published in a series of six papers in March 2020, as a focus
issue of The Astrophysical Journal Supplements.
The Hubble Space Telescope is a project
of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency).
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the
telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) conducts Hubble
science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of
Universities for Research in Astronomy, in Washington, D.C.