NASA astronaut Jessica Meir on how VR can help space missions

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CNET 18 April, 2021 - 07:00am 13 views

When will ingenuity helicopter fly on Mars?

The first helicopter is expected to attempt the first-ever flight on Mars on Sunday (April 11), with NASA unveiling the results a day later, and you can follow it all online. NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity flight coverage actually begins today (April 9) with a preflight press conference at 1 p.m. EDT (1700 GMT). Space.comHow to watch the Mars helicopter Ingenuity's first flight online

Did the helicopter fly on Mars?

The small, 4-pound helicopter hitched a ride to the red planet with the Perseverance rover, which touched down in an area of Mars known as Jezero Crater on Feb. 18. Weeks after landing, the rover transported Ingenuity to its "airfield," a flat 33-foot-by-33-foot patch of the Martian landscape. NBC NewsNASA helicopter set for historic first flight on Mars

VR isn't a perfect simulation of being in space. Not by a long shot. But it's also a far more valuable tool than maybe you might think.

Space Explorers is a multipart VR documentary made by Felix & Paul Studios, led by Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël. The VR production company has already made documentary VR films featuring Cirque du Soleil, President Barack Obama, and created the award-winning Traveling While Black. Their collaboration with NASA has been ongoing, starting with training programs and continuing with a documentary being shot in VR on the ISS.

Felix & Paul plan to take VR outside the ISS on a space walk this summer using a specially modified camera. And, after that, all the footage will be used to create an immersive walk-through experience in a touring exhibition that will allow visitors to explore a 3D re-creation of the ISS and see 3D 360-degree videos projected all around them. A TV documentary using the same footage is also in the works. 

But in many ways, the ISS VR experience feels like just the beginning of a larger relationship between space and VR. VR could eventually be used to document even more distant missions: the moon, or Mars. Or be used for telepresence. Or to help astronauts feel more at home while in space.

NASA astronaut Jessica Meir, featured in the documentary, spoke with me over Zoom about what it was like on the ISS and what filming in VR felt like. Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael also shared thoughts on where things are heading.

Jessica Meir on the ISS with the 360-degree camera.

"We're kind of used to that as astronauts already: We're always under the microscope, and we have other cameras on the space station throughout our workday, pretty much always recording what we're doing up there," Meir said of being filmed in VR in space. "It really gives us a way of sharing our experiences, which are so difficult to put into words for other people that haven't had the experience themselves."

The 8K VR cameras Felix and Paul used for the ISS Experience are modified Federal Communications Commission and space-certified versions of the Z-Cam V1 Pro, ensuring thermal and electromagnetic properties would be space-compliant, and that lenses wouldn't shatter. The production has two VR cameras on the ISS and uses one for filming at any time. 

Meir felt that being in the documentary wasn't all that strange, especially since the ISS is already full of cameras, but the possibilities for VR as a documentary memory are unique: "Other astronauts in our office, when they see the ISS experience now, it feels like we're right back on the space station. The first time I put it on, I felt like I was right back there, kind of like being in a place you've lived before. You recognize everything, and you're transported there. It's really incredible."

The VR camera on the ISS was pretty big and was used to continuously record in certain parts of the space station.

"I was up there for 205 days and because of when I arrived on the space station, it pretty much was completely chronicled on the ISS Experience," Meir says. Lower-res footage was seen by Felix & Paul via streaming to get a sense of what was shot, but the complete files were brought down to Earth between missions.

There's a lot of stuff on the ISS.

"We would just be there talking to the camera, and we would have some suggested material to talk about, but we could talk about whatever we wanted, really, "Meir says." For her, it will also function as a memory of space even though all the footage isn't being initially used for the VR documentary. "It's really nice now that we have these narratives, even if most of the content won't end up in the actual production. It's a wealth of our own kind of journaling to the camera."

The footage could very well be used to improve training for future missions. "I think almost every astronaut that has had the experience so far, watching it has noted that instantly, saying this would be such a powerful tool for training -- because we just can't really replicate and train for all the aspects of spaceflight. Without having microgravity, without having that truly three-dimensional volumetric space," says Meir. 

"There are things everywhere on the actual space station, " she continues. "There are cables coming out every which way, and it is just so different than what our training facility looks like. Having that sense of realism in terms of being able to look around you and behind you, I think there's so much that this could offer in terms of astronaut training."

The VR documentary has been collecting footage for more than two years, recording over 200 hours of Expeditions 58-62 and SpaceX Crew 1 aboard the ISS. 

A modified version of the camera will work outside the space station for what should be a five-day shoot later this year, when the camera will be mounted on the ISS' external Canadarm2 robot arm. "That's going to be the first time that Earth gets filmed in ultra high-definition video in a full 360 environment unhindered by anything" Lajeunesse says. "And that will culminate with a six-and-a-half-hour space walk that we will film with two astronauts from the moment they come out of the station until the moment they get back in."

Despite VR's benefits as a documenting and training tool, there's one thing it can't simulate: what weightlessness does to the brain. Despite playing a number of "zero g" type VR games and experiences, I'm still feeling gravity outside my headset. Despite on-Earth training equipment to simulate weightlessness, and VR simulations, "It is just impossible for us to put into words how it feels to be weightless all the time," Meir says of her time on the ISS.

"That takes your brain a long time. I mean, I can tell you, if you're eating some soup with a spoon, it is very difficult for your brain and for your hand to be trained to realize that I can just hold that spoon upside down in space. And then it's not going to fall off.

"We say when we arrive in space, we're kind of like newborns, and we have to figure out how to drink and how to feed ourselves and how to go to the bathroom," Meir says. "You can't just put something down, you have to always remember to Velcro it. People in the beginning often misplace things, or things float away. There's so many different surfaces where you could have left things, combined with the fact that every square inch is covered with stuff."

Eating in space will never cease to amaze me.

I'm amazed at the calm, almost ballet-like way that astronauts on the ISS can toss food to each other when eating. Meir says it's definitely not as effortless as it looks: "Well, I can tell you that skill is acquired. You have to train your brain because, if you think about it, whenever you throw something here [on Earth], like when you throw a baseball, you are adapting for gravity." Meir describes movement in space as being more like subtle, direct pushes. And sometimes, when you get where you're going, spatial relationships can shift, creating a different sensation of where "ground" and "ceiling" are. 

"On Earth, our brains use this directionality all the time for navigation and spatial awareness," says Meir. "I think that my brain had kind of remapped to use different cues for navigation."

My experience visiting the ISS via a VR documentary made me wonder whether this type of experience could ever happen in real time, and if that could enable astronauts to be there via telepresence. "That's something that NASA has thought a lot about as well in the past, particularly in regard to telemedicine," Meir says. "We have a lot of experiments that use ultrasound, for example. I was involved in one of those where I had a team of medical doctors and scientists that were all around the planet, and they were actually guiding me, they had the real-time image of my ultrasound as I was tuning it and could help guide me to get the probe that they needed. With virtual reality, they could have even more of a presence and, perhaps, could make it even easier."

A weightless hug on the ISS.

One idea Meir suggests makes me reconsider the role of VR: While I'm watching astronauts in space at home on a headset, astronauts may use VR to feel like they're at home. "I think that virtual reality will be really valuable in the future for psychological support as well," Meir says. "There were a couple of experiments here at NASA evaluating that, in terms of long-duration missions. There was some VR-type content where you could kind of go on a little trip or nature excursion or pick the environment you were going in. And they had actually taken recordings of my mother's voice, and there were messages as I walked around the environment that I would find from my mother. Something in this 3D, immersive virtual reality could be even more powerful if we're talking about going all the way to Mars, and having some kind of a three year mission, something like that could be a really powerful tool for psychological support for astronauts."

Felix & Paul Studios started with this multiyear project shooting VR on the ISS, but the goals afterward are farther beyond Earth. "The next step is the return of humanity to the Moon," says Lajeunesse. "We want to leverage the immersive power of augmented reality and virtual reality and immersive media as a whole, to take hundreds of millions of people to the Moon alongside the astronauts at the forefront of the mission. And then we want to go to Mars."

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Watch NASA mission control live as the Ingenuity helicopter attempts to fly on Mars on Monday

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The helicopter, called Ingenuity, traveled nearly 300 million miles to the red planet tucked inside the belly of the Perseverance rover. Now it's sitting in an airfield in Mars' Jezero Crater, where it's set to take the first controlled powered flight ever conducted on another planet.

Ingenuity is set to conduct that flight autonomously early on Monday, and NASA expects to receive data from the helicopter around 6:15 a.m. ET. That's when the agency will know whether the test flight was successful.

You can see what happened to the helicopter as NASA learns it via a livestream from mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California (embedded below). On the live feed, mission controllers may even receive the first in-flight photos from the helicopter.

In Ingenuity's first flight, it's expected to rise about 10 feet off the ground, hover there, then gently touch back down. The helicopter must conduct the entire flight autonomously. If all goes well, Ingenuity will then attempt up to four more airborne escapades over the course of 30 days. Each of those flights would be increasingly difficult, with the drone venturing higher and farther each time.

Because it takes at least eight minutes for a signal from Mars to travel to Earth, and vice versa, the engineers and technicians who run Ingenuity can only bite their nails and wait for the signal that the helicopter has flown and landed.

"I'm sure we're all going to be pretty on edge," Josh Ravich, the mechanical lead for the Ingenuity team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Insider. "Definitely nervous. I mean, it's after years and years of work, you know, kind of waiting for that little one moment to come back."

Ingenuity is a demonstration meant to test NASA's rotorcraft technology on another planet. So beyond flying and capturing photos and video from the air, it won't conduct any science. But Ingenuity could pave the way for future extraterrestrial helicopters that would do reconnaissance for rovers and astronauts, study the surface of Mars or other planets from the air, and fly through canyons and cliffs that may be inaccessible to rovers.

The NASA TV livestream, below, will begin at 6:15 a.m. ET on Monday, showing the agency's Space Flight Operations Facility as it receives data and possibly imagery from Ingenuity's flight. That's where engineers like Ravich will be waiting anxiously to hear from the helicopter.

"By its nature, it's going to have a little bit more risk than a normal mission," Ravich said. "There's a lot of things that could go wrong."

Ingenuity will have already attempted to fly about three hours earlier, at 3:30 a.m. ET. You won't be able to watch the flight in real time — NASA can't livestream from another planet — but video of and from the flight will likely become available soon afterward. The helicopter is set to record the ground below it using two cameras on its belly (one in black and white for navigation and one in color). Perseverance, meanwhile, is expected to record the flight from a nearby overlook.

It's not yet known how long it will take to get that video back to Earth and for NASA to publish it. Perseverance beamed back complete video footage of its landing within three days.

Monday's test flight was originally scheduled for April 12, but NASA delayed it after a crucial spin test ended abruptly. That test involved spinning the helicopter's carbon-fiber blades at full speed while on the ground. The two pairs of blades must spin in opposite directions at about 2,500 revolutions per minute — about eight times as fast as a passenger helicopter on Earth — to lift the 4-pound drone. That's necessary because Martian air has just 1% the density of Earth's atmosphere.

But the spin-test ended when the helicopter failed to transition its flight computer from "pre-flight" to "flight" mode. Ingenuity's engineers have since fixed the problem by tweaking the helicopter's flight-control software. Ingenuity re-did its full-speed spin test on Friday, and the blades performed as they should during flight.

If everything goes as NASA hopes, Ingenuity's fifth and final flight will carry the helicopter over 980 feet (300 meters) of Martian ground.

"Each one of those is probably going to be, you know, a pretty tense and exciting experience," Ravich said.

But even if Ingenuity only completes this first 10-foot hover, that will be a major achievement.

"It will be truly a Wright brothers moment but on another planet," MiMi Aung, the project manager for the helicopter team, said in a briefing before the rover landed. "Every step going forward will be first of a kind."

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