Canadian-born NASA systems engineer Farah Alibay got only a bit of shut-eye Sunday night before nervous anticipation took over.
“By 1 a.m. (Monday), I was lying there and I was like, ‘I’m just not going to sleep now, so I might as well go in and be with the team,’” she recalled.
A couple of hours later, those nerves gave way to euphoria — and relief — as Alibay, who was born and raised in Montreal, and fellow engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., received data and images confirming that Ingenuity, NASA’s spindly four-legged experimental helicopter, had risen above the dusty red surface of Mars — the first powered, controlled flight by an aircraft on another planet.
“For me it was a ton of joy, but almost a little bit of disbelief at how beautiful that flight was. It was like picture perfect,” Alibay told the Star, adrenalin still coursing through her body hours later.
“It’s a huge technical accomplishment. When this helicopter idea came along people didn’t even think we could fly on Mars because the atmosphere is so thin. They thought the team was crazy. Look what we did.”
Even though the mini, 1.8-kilogram chopper lifted off the ground only about three metres and remained airborne for merely 39 seconds, it was hailed by scientists as a Wright brothers moment. (It even carried a bit of wing fabric from the Wright Flyer that made similar history at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903.)
“Goosebumps. It looks just the way we had tested,” project manager MiMi Aung said as she watched the flight video during a briefing later. “Absolutely beautiful flight. I don’t think I can ever stop watching it over and over again.”
Scientists say Monday’s $85-million historic flight — some 287 million kilometres away from Earth — holds the promise that future helicopters can serve as scouts for rovers and lookouts for astronauts when they encounter difficult, dangerous places. They could also help transport packages between human crews. On Earth, the technology could enable helicopters to reach new heights, doing things like more easily navigating the Himalayas.
Ingenuity hitched a ride to Mars on the Perseverance rover, clinging to the rover’s underbelly when it touched down in an ancient river delta in February.
“Flying on Mars is incredibly difficult. The Martian atmosphere is only one per cent (the density) of the Earth’s atmosphere,” Alibay said.
As a result, engineers had to build a helicopter that was light enough — but with blades spinning fast enough — to generate lift.
On Earth, drones are difficult enough to fly as it is, Alibay said, but at least you have direct control over the drone.
With Ingenuity, all of its movements were preprogrammed; scientists sent a series of commands to the chopper via the rover overnight, not knowing what types of wind and weather conditions they would face. Fortunately, the winds turned out to be light.
“Really this is just the beginning,” Alibay said. “What it’s opening up is aerial exploration of Mars and other planets because now we start to understand what it takes to fly on another planet.”
Ingenuity, which is topped with a solar panel for recharging its batteries — crucial for surviving minus-90 degree Martian nights — is expected to make up to five additional, and increasingly ambitious, flights in the coming days.
Perseverance will then resume with its main mission: collecting rock samples to see if they hold evidence of past Martian life.
Alibay’s fondness for space exploration started at a young age. She says she was eight when she saw the movie “Apollo 13” and was drawn to the teamwork it took to safely bring three astronauts home after an aborted lunar mission.
“What I remember is the team coming together to achieve the impossible,” she said. “What I realized was, ‘Wow this is what I want to do. I want to be a part of those teams.’”
According to her online biography on the NASA website, Alibay studied aerospace engineering at the University of Cambridge and got a PhD in systems engineering at MIT. It was during an internship with the space agency that she got the “bug” for robotic planetary exploration.
“Robotic exploration is what gets us out to those strange worlds, right? You can get much further with robotic exploration. It allows you to go out to places like Mars, like Jupiter, like Saturn and for me that was the appeal,” she said.
“I often say I get to be an explorer through the eyes of these rovers, of these spacecraft but from the comfort of my own home.”
Alibay says she wouldn’t have been able to achieve this success without the sacrifices of her grandparents, who fled civil unrest in Madagascar to provide better opportunities for their children and grandchildren.
“My family has given up so much for my brother and I to be here,” she said.
“My grandmother didn’t finish high school. Now I have a PhD from MIT. And that’s thanks to her and her sacrifices. When moments like this happen it’s very humbling. This isn’t just about me and my accomplishments. There’s a whole support system behind each and every one of us. Each of us has a story that got us here.”
With the current helicopter mission, Alibay’s role is to help choreograph the activities between the rover and the chopper. On the main rover mission, her responsibilities involve helping to oversee the rover’s mobility and navigation systems — essentially making sure the rover doesn’t get lost.
Down the road, Alibay has her starry sights set even further afield.
She says her favourite moon is Saturn’s Enceladus, known for having a water ocean underneath an icy crust and geysers that spew water vapour at its south pole.
“It’s a dream of mine to explore it one day.”