IN PICTURES – This Rennais is going to fly a helicopter on Mars

It is Rennes and will fly a helicopter on Mars. Perseverance’s landing on the Red Planet on Thursday, February 18 was followed with attention around the world. With the rover, NASA took on board a small helicopter (50cm high and 1.20m wide), named Ingenuity. There are a hundred engineers from NASA behind Ingenuity, and among them only one French, and he’s a 34-year-old from Rennes.

I was passionate about the sky, astronomy more than rockets“, says Jeff Delaune.”I was in the Rennes Astronomical Society before embarking on a scientific engineer course. “Passed through the Lycée Saint-Martin and the preparatory classes of Chateaubriand, this passionate about space since childhood leaves Rennes at the age of 20 for the central school in Nantes.

The entire Ingenuity team, including Jeff Delaune, on December 3, 2018.

Engineer at NASA

He then specialized in space at Cranfield University in the United Kingdom. “I was lucky enough to be able to do a doctorate funded by the European Space Agency (ESA).“He leaves for the Netherlands to work on a lunar mission to land at the South Pole. “It will never happen but ultimately it was a good subject of study when I was a student.”

An experience that will serve to achieve his goal of coming to work in the United States. “It’s quite complicated because everything that is a space system is considered to be missiles, weapons. They have a big preference for Americans, so we have to show that we are among the best in the world on his little expertise. “Jeff Delaune’s specialty is navigation systems. No GPS on Mars or the Moon, so it requires a camera system.”We use cameras, like the human eye could compare the terrain it sees with a map, to try to find our bearings in relation to that.

“A childhood dream”

Jeff Delaune joined NASA’s famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in 2016. Knowing his work on Ingenuity arrived on Mars, “cis a childhood dream. Anytime I was next to the flight model I had a hard time realizing that this was something that was going to be on Mars a few months later.. “An awareness that was made a few weeks ago.”I really realized two or three days before landing. It is difficult to imagine Mars, the planets … In the two or three years preceding the launch, we saw these robots every day. The biggest achievement is to think that this craft is really on Mars now, that this is all very real.

The flight model inspected on March 10, 2020, before being attached to the Perseverance rover.
The flight model inspected on March 10, 2020, before being attached to the Perseverance rover.
NASA / Cory Huston

The goal of the mission is to prove that we can successfully fly in the atmosphere of Mars. To eventually send a bigger helicopter. A project on which Jeff Delaune has now been working for two years. “Helicopter # 2” will not just aim to prove that you can fly, like Ingenuity, but will have a scientific goal. A helicopter “larger which carries measuring instruments and which evolves in a manner complementary to the rover“. The idea is to recover samples in places inaccessible to the rover, for example.”Another option would be to be able to assist a human exploration of Mars.“, explains Jeff Delaune. The company SpaceX is positioned to go there from 2024. NASA thinks to go there around 2030 or 2035.

Artist's impression of the Ingenuity helicopter in flight over the planet Mars.
Artist’s impression of the Ingenuity helicopter in flight over the planet Mars.

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