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, . 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 two 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 after the 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. , 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.
has refreshed its iPad lineup with . The company is (finally) updating the iPad mini and adding a new iPad Air. This model sits between the entry-level 9.7-inch iPad and the 11-inch iPad Pro in the lineup. All new models now support the Apple Pencil, but you might want to double check your iPad model before buying one. The new iPad models released today work with the first-gen Apple Pencil, not the new Apple Pencil that supports magnetic charging and pairing. So let’s look at those new iPads. First, the hasn’t been refreshed in three and a half years. Many people believed that Apple would simply drop the model as smartphones got bigger. But the iPad mini is making a surprise comeback. It looks identical to the previous 2015 model. But everything has been updated inside the device. It now features an A12 chip (the system on a chip designed for the iPhone XS), a 7.9-inch display that is 25 percent brighter, features a wider range of colors and works with True Tone. And it also works with the Apple Pencil. Unlike with the iPad Pro, the iPad mini still features a Touch ID fingerprint sensor, a Lightning port and a headphone jack. You can buy it today for $399 for 64GB. You can choose to pay more for 256GB of storage and cellular connectivity. It comes in silver, space gray and gold. Second, the iPad Air. While the name sounds familiar, this is a new device in the iPad lineup. When Apple introduced the new iPad Pro models back in October, Apple raised the prices on this segment of the market. This new iPad Air is a bit cheaper than the 11-inch iPad Pro and looks more or less like the previous generation 10.5-inch iPad Pro — I know it’s confusing. The iPad Air now features an A12 chip, which should represent a significant upgrade over the previous generation iPad Pro that featured an A10X. The iPad Air works with the Smart Keyboard. You can buy the device today for $499 with 64GB of storage. You can choose to pay more for 256GB of storage and cellular connectivity. It comes in silver, space gray and gold. The $329 iPad with a 9.7-inch display hasn’t been updated today. It still features an A10 chip, 64GB of storage and a display without True Tone technology or a wider range of colors. — Tim Cook (@tim_cook)