Deepfakes: Big Tech Fights Back

Season 2 • Episode 6

Deepfakes, those computer-generated videos of well-known people saying things they never actually said, strike a lot of experts as terrifying. If we can’t even trust videos we see online, how does democracy stand a chance?

As photo- and video-manipulation apps get cheaper and better, the rise of fake Obamas, Trumps, and Ukrainian presidents seemed unstoppable. But then a coalition of 750 camera, software, news, and social-media companies got together to embrace an ingenious way to shut the deepfakers down—not by detecting when videos are fake, but by offering proof that they’re real. 

Guests: Dana Rao, chief counsel and executive vice president of Adobe; Eric Horvitz, chief scientific officer, Microsoft.

Episode transcript


Theme begins.

Deepfakes are phony videos of real people, generated by artificial intelligence software to undermine our trust. These days, deepfakes are so realistic, that experts worry about what they’ll do to news and democracy. 

“OBAMA:” We’re entering an era where our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time.

It was all looking pretty hopeless—until a counterforce came together, made up of Adobe and Microsoft—and 750 of their closest corporate friends.

I’m David Pogue, and this is “Unsung Science.”

First Ad

Season 2, Episode 6. Deepfakes: Big Tech Fights Back.

If you were online in 2021, there’s a good chance you saw one of those viral Tom Cruise deepfakes:

Cruise deepfake clip.

“CRUISE:” I’m gonna show you some magic. The real thing (laugh).

I mean it’s a little dumb that I’m playing that for you, because what you heard there is actually not computer-generated. So far, most deepfakes are AI-generated fake video. And in that Tom Cruise deepfake, the voice isn’t synthetic. The Tom Cruise voice there is an actor. I mean, a different actor. Not Tom Cruise. I really hope this makes sense.


If you had the good taste to listen to season 1 of “Unsung Science,” you may remember an episode about the rise of voice deepfakes. Here’s a synthetic rendition of me, closing out that episode:

DPFAKE: Well, in the end, voice synthesis is just another technology. What happens from here isn’t about the tool; it’s about whoever’s wielding it.

Now that’s what I call…a Dpfake! Get it? David Pogue, DP, my initials? Dpfake? Sounds kinda like deepfake?


Now, so far, most of the deepfake videos we’ve seen have clearly been intended for entertainment purposes. There was the Obama one…

OBAMA: Now, you see, I would never say these things. At least not in a public address.

A lot of Donald Trump ones…

TRUMP: I had no doubt I was going to win. No one was against me, the entire country’s with me, I have to tell you. Tremendous.

And here’s a decent Morgan Freeman…

MORGAN: What is your preception of reality? Is it the ability to capture, process, and make sense of the information our senses receive?

So those are just stunts. Just for fun. But every now and then, somebody makes a deepfake that’s really meant to trick us. Usually for political reasons. 

For example, there was a deepfake of Ukrainian president Vladimir Zelenskyy, where he called on his armed forces to lay down their arms and surrender to Russia:

VLADIMIR: [use your favorite sentence from the clip]

And there was the time someone slowed down a video of speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi by 25%, to make it look like she was drunk:

“NANCY:” We want to give this president the opportunity to do something historic for this country. 

Of course, that wasn’t technically a deepfake—no new audio or video was generated, and no AI was involved—but it was manipulated video, designed to mislead us for political goals. 

As this Microsoft YouTube video points out,

HENRIQUE: Advances in computer graphics and machine learning have led to the general available of easy-to-use tools in modifying and synthesizing media. And that threatens to cast a doubt on the veracity of our media. At what point do we question everything we see and hear?

OK, so why don’t we just get a bunch of Big Tech geniuses to write software that can detect when a video is fake, and flag it?

Oh, trust me—they’ve tried! Adobe, Facebook, MIT, Microsoft, and the Department of Defense, among many others, have all tried to create deepfake detection software—and none of them really worked. At one point, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and a bunch of researchers collaborated on a Deepfake Detection Challenge, where they gave away a million dollars to the winners of a contest to develop the best detection algorithm. The first-place winner managed to guess “real or fake” correctly—65% of the time. Wow man.

And yeah—detection software will get better. Unfortunately, so will the deepfakes themselves. 

RAO: 15:03:28  / we met with– our image and AI scientists. / We said, “Can we detect this automatically?”

This is Dana Rao, chief counsel and executive vice president of Adobe.

RAO: 15:03:41  /  The problem is the technology to detect AI is developing. And the prod– and the technology to edit AI is developing. And there’s always gonna be this horse race of which one wins. 

15:04:13  / And it’d have to be at 100% accuracy rate or no one would believe it./

15:03:55  And so we know that for a long-term perspective, AI is not going to be the answer. 

In other words, trying to write software that will detect a deepfake is hopeless. Sure, our detection software is going to get better, but meanwhile the deepfake-creating software will have gotten better better…and on and on we’ll go forever, as trust collapses and democracy dies.  

Bring up closing music—we’re going to make listeners think  is the end.

So I guess the bad guys win this time. Such a bummer! I’m David Pogue, and this is “Unsung Science.”

UNSUNG SCIENCE with David Pogue is presented by Simon & Schuster and CBS News, and produced by PRX Productions.…

End music

PSYCH! You didn’t really think I’d leave you depressed like that, did you?

Nope. This is not going to be another news item to bum you out. This, it turns out, is a good-news story. 

It starts with Adobe’s engineers suddenly having a eureka moment: that it would not even try to detect deepfakes. 

Rao: So / we flipped the problem on its head./ what we really need is to provide people a way to know what’s true, instead of trying to catch everything that’s false./

POGUE: 15:10:08  So you’re not out to develop technology that can prove that something’s a fake. This technology will prove that something’s for real.

RAO: 15:10:16  Absolutely. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do. / 15:17:04  It is a lie detector for photos and videos.

Here’s Adobe’s YouTube video about the idea:

NARR: When a photojournalist captures an image, they can choose to preserve its key facts. Like who shot it, where they were, and when it happened. Then, when the image appears on screens all around the world, its history moves with it. And if anything was changed along the way, everyone can see. 

Now, Adobe’s a natural company to be worried about fake photos and videos—after all, they’re responsible for selling some of the most popular tools for editing photos and videos, like Photoshop, Premiere, and After Effects. Adobe called its project …the Content Authenticity Initiative. The CAI.

But here’s the twist: At the same time, unbeknownst to Adobe, right up the west coast, another company was working away at the same problem—with exactly the same approach.

POGUE: 12:35:05;06 Before we start, would you spell and pronounce your name for our records?

HORVITZ: 12:35:08;12 It’s Eric Horvitz. / Just two syllables to all the Horowitzes out there that want (LAUGH) me to be different. (LAUGH)

POGUE: 12:35:19;23 And you’re chief scientific officer?

HORVITZ: 12:35:21;24 Yes. Of Microsoft.

Horvitz is no stranger to tackling gigantic ugly problems in the digital world. He is also the co-inventor of the email spam filter.

POGUE: 12:37:42;24 You are?

HORVITZ: 12:37:43;16 Yeah. Yeah.

POGUE: 12:37:43;18 I didn’t know that. Wow. (LAUGH)

HORVITZ: 12:37:45;02 Yeah. Back in 1998.

POGUE: 12:37:46;17 Oh, my gosh.

He, too, had concluded that creating a deepfake-detecting AI would turn into a futile arms race.

Note: Tightening up his pauses would be most appreciated!

HORVITZ: 12:38:13;13 It’s kinda AI versus AI neck and neck. You use ‘em to create and to detect. And it’ll never be a reliable way to win.

12:38:42;19 And seeing the world going in that direction– I had to jump outside of AI for solutions. And I– I basically brought together several teams across Microsoft at– at the time. / to sit in front of white boards and figure out, like, “How can we solve this problem? Is there a way out?”

12:39:01;24 / what we came up with was a– way to use cryptography, distributed databases, notions of signing—content, / to certify the source and life history of a piece of media as it travels around/ such that consumers/ will get to see right away– what’s the source, origin, and history of edits– / to understand that– a piece of content comes from whom it says it comes from, as opposed to– having to guess.

POGUE: 12:41:22;22 / So (LAUGHTER) / attached to a picture or video is going to be this invisible certificate of authenticity and provenance. Is that a good way to describe it?

HORVITZ: 12:41:37;24 Absolutely. / think about it as– a– certification that /- a trusted source of the information– who published it– certifies exactly what you’re seeing. And if not, you can see who’s changed it. /

Microsoft refers to this invisible document as a manifest—as in “manifest,” the document that lists what’s on a ship or who’s on a plane. Sometimes you’ll hear it referred to as the provenance of a photo or video, as in “provenance,” the document that lists who’s owned a certain painting. Microsoft called its initiative—Project Origin. 

Henrique: We’re forming a coalition of many institutions, including the BBC, the CBC Radio Canada, the NY Times, and Microsoft. We call this coalition, Project Origin. 

So now we had two competing programs. Adobe with its Content Authenticity Initiative, and Microsoft with is its Project Origin. Well, that’s just what we need. Another format war, like VHS-Betamax. iPhone/Android. Playstation/Xbox. Mac/Windows. Coke/Pepsi.

Ah, but there’s a delicious twist. See, neither company plans to make money from their inventions. I heard that from Adobe…

RAO: 15:06:21  / This is an open standard. We founded this to be open so anyone can build this technology. / We’re not charging separately for it. No one is. This is something we’re all doing to come together for the common good. 

…and from Microsoft.

HORVITZ: 12:50:04;24 /Microsoft has a– long tradition of being very interested in not just– technology, but socio-technical issues. The influence of technology on people and society. / As chief scientific officer, I oversee– a whole set of projects in the area of technical responsibility, including being responsible about advances in AI, artificial intelligence– and its influences on– on– on organizations, on people and society/.

And since this provenance business wasn’t going to be a profit center for either company, they did something amazing: They decided to work together. 

HORVITZ: 13:08:31;19 Project Origin / coming together with the– the Content Authenticity Initiative, led by Adobe, bringing those teams together, forming a standards body– called C2PA, the Con– the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity, generating a standard now being sucked in by all these companies who say, “My tools will talk to that standard.”

POGUE: 13:09:14;12 What’s really impressive is that you’re / mentioning software companies, Microsoft, Adobe who are, in some realms, competitors. You’re saying that they all laid down their arms to work together on something to save democracy.

HORVITZ: 13:09:33;12 Yeah. /we do see, I wouldn’t say necessarily competitors, but– groups working together across the larger ecosystem.

OK, I’d like to insert here a little side note about novelists: I hate it when writers give several of their characters names that start with the same letter. Like, across 500 pages, I’m supposed to remember who’s Caleb, Calvin, Caden, and Cameron? 

Well, we’re gonna have a similar situation here. Adobe’s coalition was called the Content Authenticity Initiative, and now the joint venture with Microsoft is called the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity. And to make matters worse, the actual manifest, the data that describes the history of this photo and video—is called? Are you ready? The Content Credentials.


Anyway. Dana Rao gave me a demo on his laptop to show me how it’ll work.

RAO: 15:52:37  Imagine you’re scrolling through your social feeds. The inevitable cat picture. And you see something you’re not quite sure of. Someone sent you a picture of– snowy pyramids. And they told you that the scientists found them in Antarctica. And that’s not what your fifth grade teacher told you.

So at this point, he’s showing me a website that’s very obviously Facebook—or, rather, very obviously supposed to look like Facebook. There’s the familiar blue banner across the top, except that in this case, instead of saying “Facebook,” it says “My Social Feed.” Oooh, clever.

One of the posts shows a photo of what looks like the three famous Egyptian pyramids—except they are now covered in snow.

When he mouses over the photo, we see a tiny icon appear in the upper right. It looks like a lowercase letter I, as in “info,” inside a little white circle. 

RAO: 15:49:27  / And so you click on this button. C– it’ll s– it’s the Content Credentials. And you’ll get this information.

When he clicks it, a new window opens, with the snowy pyramids in the middle, and information panels on either side.

RAO: 15:49:42  So here you’re gonna be able to see on the left the image that you clicked on. And then you’re gonna see the original image there. /

15:49:58  And you’re gonna see exactly on the left what edits were made. AI tools were used. There were color adjustments that were made. Photoshop was used. You’re gonna see some information about when it was made and where it was made. In this case– Cairo, Egypt, not Antarctica, (LAUGHTER) shockingly.

Now, the photo has a vertical divider splitting it in half. It’s like an adjustable split screen, showing the same photo before and after it was manipulated. He’s dragging the slider left and right, so I can see more or less of the original photo. 

RAO: 15:50:16  /And you’re just gonna be able to take this slider and you’re gonna be able to see the edits just like that.

15:53:19  / people are still fighting today about whether or not that iconic shot of Neil Armstrong was true or not. So imagine you had Content Credentials there. It’d say Buzz Aldren took it and it’d say it was taken in space and we wouldn’t be having this debate anymore. (LAUGHTER)

POGUE: 15:53:41  Sh– it would tell you what camera, right? The iPhone point-zero-zero-one! (LAUGHTER)

So that’s Content Credentials: the future of the fight against deepfakes. It’s brilliant, it’s un-fakeable, it’s futureproof—and, as I see it, it’s hopelessly flawed. In five different ways. We’ll get to that—after the break. Patience, grasshopper. 


OK: What we’ve established so far is that Microsoft and Adobe teamed up to ruin the lives of the scumbags who create deepfakes. And the way they plan to do that is by invisibly embedding, in every photo, video, and audio clip, a manifest—a document that shows where this bit of media came from, and how it’s been changed en route to your screen.

Seems like a rock-solid concept—except for the five little flaws I could see immediately.

The first one that jumped out at me is this: That’s great that Microsoft and Adobe are teaming up to make this happen. But there are a lot of players in a video’s journey from camera to your eyeballs. Like, somebody shot it, then transferred it to their computer, edited it, posted it on Facebook. It then got cropped to fit TikTok and Instagram, it went viral, and then the New York Times posted it on its website. 

If this Content Credentials business is going to work, the manifest would have to remain attached to that video through that entire journey, and remain attached every time someone re-encoded or re-formatted it for another website or app. You’d have to get the camera involved. The editing software. Facebook. TikTok, Instgram. The news site. The social-media site. 

POGUE: 15:05:01  But doesn’t that mean that the New York Times and the Washington Post and Twitter and so on would all have to be on board with this?

RAO: 15:05:08  Absolutely. / we all have to come together to solve this. 15:07:24  / We’re talking to everybody. 

Well, guess what? Getting every single company on board was exactly the strategy. Beginning in 2018, Adobe and Microsoft started approaching these companies one at a time. 

RAO: 15:05:32  / like Qualcomm, who’s a chip maker who makes chips that go into smartphones. Arm, also a chip maker making chips that go into smartphones. And then we have the Washington Post. We have U.S.A. Today. We have the BBC. /

And Nikon, the Wall Street Journal, the BBC, Twitter—all told, 750 companies are involved so far, representing every conceivable piece of the pipeline from the camera to your retinas.

Although…You know who’s noticeably absent from the coalition? Facebook. Figures. 

RAO: 15:13:31  So the newspapers and the media have been the most interested and excited about this. And I believe that’s because this is based on transparency. / What we wanna get out of the business of, is the governments or tech platforms being the arbiters of truth, making those decisions of saying, “You should believe this,” or, “You shouldn’t believe this,” rather than getting to that, “We’ll show you what happened. And then you decide.”

OK. But I do have a second concern about all of this. And that is that the people who are trying to manipulate you—aren’t going to use the Content Credentials thing! They’ll go right on creating fake videos and photos—that just won’t have the little Content Credentials button on ‘em. So how does this help us?

I asked Adobe’s Dana Rao.

POGUE: 15:53:13  And if that little button in the top right isn’t there, then what do I conclude?

RAO: 15:53:19  You would say, “I think this person may be trying to fool me.” (LAUGHTER) 15:17:09  / The bad actors, they’re not gonna use this tool. They’re gonna– / they’re gonna make up something. And they’re gonna doctor it. / But they’re not gonna f– show Content Credentials. They’re just gonna show you that finished product. And then you’re gonna have to say to yourself, /

15:09:46  Why didn’t they wanna show me their work? Why didn’t they wanna show me what was real, what edits they made? Because if they didn’t wanna show that to you, maybe you shouldn’t believe them.

POGUE: 12:44:21;00 / let’s say it’s five years from now and I’m scrolling through Facebook and here’s a picture of the president saying, “I like to murder baby animals,” and that icon isn’t there. So what should my reaction be?

HORVITZ: 12:44:52;07 I think immediate skepticism. And I want to be in that world. 

In other words, there will be videos that don’t have the Content Credentials button—but at least you’ll know not to put your trust in ‘em. You won’t click like, or share, or forward, or get outraged, unless you see something that does have the button.

OK, so here’s the third obvious flaw: 

POGUE: 13:02:57;04 If I’m the bad guy, why can’t I fake the manifest as well? Why can’t I put a fake icon on my fake video?

HORVITZ: 13:03:08;07 Well, the icon itself doesn’t come from the video. It comes from– a pipeline– / that you might say is secretly or cryptographically embedded in the video in an indelible way.

POGUE: 13:03:27;10 /  can’t I fake that? / just like they do phishing websites that look just like the Bank of America?

HORVITZ: 13:03:43;07 We are very wary about very kinds of attacks of the whole model like that.  / And we designed the technology so that is impossible. If we didn’t do that, we’d be in the same hot water. 

Behind the scenes, Content Credentials involves a lot of complicated cryptographic shenanigans that would make your eyes glaze over if you majored in anything besides computer science. 

But in a Microsoft video for developers, distinguished engineer Paul England explains it like this:

PAUL: The final thing we need to do is make sure that nobody else can make a manifest for the video that says it’s something other than it is. And the way we do this is with something called a digital signature.

A digital signature is very much like a handwritten signature, but sort of better. Handwritten signatures are meant to prove who wrote a particular document. The digital signature does exactly the same thing, but it’s based on a cryptographic key. And as long as the publisher keeps that key secret, so no one else can get at it, then we know no way that somebody else can forge a digital signature for a manifest.

As a handy bonus, the plan is to store the manifests on a public blockchain—a tamper-evident public database that can be infinitely duplicated and examined. It’s exactly the same trust mechanism that makes possible cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin—just being used in a clever new way.

OK, potential flaw number 4: That’s all great for major web sites. But what about us ordinary schmoes? We would like to be trusted, too… 

POGUE: 15:09:04  / So let’s say that I’m not a journalist. I’m just somebody who pulls out my phone when there’s a fight on a plane, and I wanna post it to Facebook. I don’t use any Adobe software. / Am I able to be part of this chain?

RAO: 15:09:28  Absolutely. If you’re using a smartphone and– or a camera, one of the partners that are part of the content authenticity sh– ‘nitiative who– who have implemented this technology into their phone or camera, you’ll be able to select that button before you take that video to say, “I want this captured.”

15:09:46  And once you capture it, you can publish it. 

Ooooooh-kay…. Well, I look forward to the new generations of phones that have Content Credentials built into every photo and video.

Well, what about objection #5—privacy?

RAO: 15:10:38  / this is an opt in solution. You choose whether or not you wanna capture this. If you said, “Hey, I don’t want anyone to know what I’m doing to this image,” that’s fine. On the other hand, if you’re taking– a really important, news-worthy picture, and you decide not to select it, you just have to understand that people may not believe that what you took was real.

POGUE: 15:11:06  /  Will there be the opportunity for me to turn it on at the time I take the picture, and then change my mind before I release it into the wild?

RAO: 15:11:15  You will be able to delete the Content Credentials. So remember, Content Credentials is what we’re calling the metadata that gets associated with the image that goes along with it. And you can choose to say, “No, I changed my mind. I don’t wanna do it anymore.” And it won’t go travel with it. And people will just look at the image and they’ll just not know what happened to it.

I’ve been trying to avoid the nerd-out term “metadata,” but it’s gonna be hard to avoid in this discussion. Metadata refers to the invisible data that’s attached to every photo, video, and audio recording. Like the time and date you captured it, or where. That metadata tells your photos app how to sort your pictures chronologically or by location, for example.

And Content Credentials, as it turns out, are just a glorified new kind of metadata.

RAO: 15:12:14  What we’re adding, which is– is important, is we’re adding the edits that you made to the image. So you’re gonna be able to see, what did they do to that image? Did they change the lighting or did they take someone’s head and swap it for someone else’s head? We’re gonna know that. /

POGUE: 15:17:44  I mean, on one hand, / I think that it’s super ambitious to imagine that every citizen’s gonna learn to use this and every camera company and software company’s gonna adopt it. On the other hand, PDF! Adobe (LAUGHTER) invented PDF and now everybody in the world knows what it is and uses it. So what is your current expectation of its ultimate adoption?

RAO: 15:18:13  Yeah. We’re very optimistic. I mean, Adobe as– as you mentioned, we’re the world’s leading creative company, right? We have millions of users who use tools like Photoshop every single day./

15:18:30  So we have global reach. / But this is not an Adobe solution only. /

At this moment, Adobe apps like Photoshop and Behance already have Content Credentials features up and running. 

I realize that you’re not seeing that little lowercase-i-in-a-circle on social media yet; as 2022 wraps up, all of this is still in beta testing. But Dana Rao says we won’t have to wait long.

RAO: 15:24:18  / the very first step was getting this into Photoshop and getting working code into Photoshop. So we’ve passed that milestone. / 15:24:41  So I think next year’s a big year /.

I sure hope so. Because, as Microsoft’s Eric Horvitz points out…

HORVIZ: 12:43:47;20 / within five or ten years, if we don’t have this technology, most of what people will be seeing or quite a lot of it will be synthetic. We won’t be able to tell the difference.

I should also stick the silver-bullet disclaimer in here. Content Credentials could be a huge step toward shutting down those misinformation slimeballs. But the experts don’t think technology will solve the deepfakes problem in one shot.

HORVITZ: 12:45:13;22 / it’s not gonna be one answer. Let me just say that we have to do many things. We have to think through media education, literacy, skepticism– understanding technologies like this / technology we’re talking about. /

In other words, we have to start upgrading our baloney detectors.

HORVITZ: 12:56:02;24 It’s also gonna be / government. / I served on a committee called the National Security Commission on AI where we actually talked about this. But now there’s a bill in c– in Congress– bipartisan bill– introduced by Senators Peters and Portman called the Deepfake and Provenance Act.

12:56:27;00 And so this– this– a bill– it will call for a task force to study, “Well, what’s the government’s approach to this?” /

But in the end, Dana Rao thinks they might actually pull off something that people once thought was impossible: ending the deepfake reign of terror.

RAO: 15:18:45  / we really feel the momentum is– is forward and– and confident that this will work. Because it’s the right solution. It’s the solution we need. And there’s no turning back. /

Microsoft’s Eric Horvitz, too:

POGUE: 13:10:17;15 Wow. So this thing could work?

HORVITZ: 13:10:20;04 I think it has a chance of making a dent. Potentially a big dent in / this challenge of our time.

Well…here’s to Content Credentials, big tech doing the right thing…and making big dents in big problems.

UNSUNG SCIENCE with David Pogue is presented by Simon & Schuster and CBS News, and produced by PRX Productions.  

Executive Producers for Simon & Schuster are Richard Rhorer and Chris Lynch.  

The PRX production team is Jocelyn Gonzales, Morgan Flannery, Pedro Rafael Rosado and Morgan Church

Jesi Nelson composed the Unsung Science theme music, and our fact checker is Kristina Rebelo. Special thanks to Olivia(?)

For more on the show, visit Go to my website at David or follow me: @Pogue on your social media platform of choice. Be sure to like and subscribe to Unsung Science wherever you get your podcasts.

The Mars Helicopter That Would Not Die

Season 2 • Episode 5

The star attraction of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is the Perseverance rover. But bolted to its underside was a stowaway: A tiny, 19-inch helicopter called Ingenuity. 

She was intended to fly five times on Mars, as a wild experiment to see if anything could fly in Mars’s incredibly thin atmosphere. But as the speed, altitude, length, and usefulness of Ingenuity’s flights improved, her mission was extended indefinitely. Ingenuity is still flying, nearly a year after its original mission was to end—and now, NASA is designing a new generation of Mars helicopters, based on her unlikely success. In this episode, meet the three engineers who created Ingenuity—and kept her flying against all physical, planetary, and managerial odds.   

Episode Transcript

Season 2, Episode 5: The Mars Helicopter That Would Not Die.


Theme begins.

In 2013, a splinter faction of NASA engineers had the bizarre idea to build a helicopter… and send it to Mars, attached to the belly of the Mars 2020 rover. Not everybody loved the idea.

BOB: [00:04:37] / There were more than a handful of people who would be very happy to just get this stupid distraction off the rover. You know, it was a nuisance. 

TEDDY: [00:11:52] Yeah. / there were a lot of / skeptics within the engineering community at large./ 

Today, the skeptics have become cheerleaders. Today, NASA is designing more Mars helicopters. Bigger ones. Better ones. This may be the most amazing Cinderella story in space-engineering history.

I’m David Pogue, and this is “Unsung Science.”

First Ad

In July 2020, NASA sent a helicopter to Mars.

You’d be forgiven for having some questions about that line. First of all, NASA made a helicopter? Second of all…for Mars?

I mean, how? And why? 

I mean—a helicopter’s propellers work by spinning through air, right? But how are they supposed to work on Mars, where there’s practically no air at all? There’s an atmosphere, but it’s really thin. 

TEDDY: [00:09:52] / The density is 1% that of Earth’s, right? /  It’s such a tiny fraction when it comes to air density. 

And now you have to think, okay, the rotor blades as they’re spinning, there’s almost nothing, right? How on earth—how on Mars—could they spin fast enough to actually produce enough upwards lift force, right? It sounds impossible and it is almost impossible. 

Meet Teddy Tzanetos, NASA’s Mars helicopter team lead.

TEDDY: (cont’d) / to stand any sort of chance of doing that, right, there’s kind of the three hallmarks of a Mars helicopter. 

One is it’s got to be very, very light, right? / So you got to be very light. 

You have to have large rotor blades. The larger you are, the more air / you can push off of against. 

And you need to spin those blades very, very quickly. / we’re spinning at around 2800 revolutions per minute, right? Incredibly fast. Whereas helicopters here on Earth, they’re, you know, around 500 and higher, / but they’re hundreds of RPM. But on Mars, you need to spin that much faster /. 

POGUE: [00:17:40] / So / the thin atmosphere made it harder to fly. 

TEDDY: Yeah. 

POGUE: But presumably the lesser gravity helped you to fly. 

TEDDY: It’s a bad trade. Oh, you are correct, you are correct. But it’s a bad trade overall.  

So it’s about one-third the gravity of earth, right? So all of us could jump higher. You know, we could probably stand a good chance of dunking on Mars, if we could hold our breath long enough. 

But it’s a bad trade overall because of how difficult the 1% the density makes flying. /

OK, so that’s the “how.” But how about why? NASA already has a rover, and it’s already got a rocket. So what value does the chopper add?

AUNG: 13:35:09 So first, if you allow me to state the obvious, we as human beings have never flown in the atmosphere of Mars, right? So this is like the Wright brothers equivalent, right, on Mars. / this would be the very first flight.

This is Mimi Aung, who was the project manager for the helicopter. I met her in 2018, while the chopper was still under construction. I was working on a “CBS Sunday Morning” story about plans to get to Mars. the Mars race.

AUNG: 13:35:50 / there are two major– important– contributions from adding the aerial dimension. The first is forward reconnaissance. So having a helicopter go kilometers ahead of a rover and /to see / where you’re going will make tremendous contributions for rovers/.

13:36:17 And the second part is, there are parts of Mars that we simply cannot get to with rovers, or even when humans get there. For example, sides of very steep cliffs. Very steep volcanoes. You would need an aerial platform that can take you there to get close up to those targets. 

So that was the original sales pitch: “If this test works, then someday, a helicopter could serve as a scout.” It could look ahead, to see if this mountain or that crater is even worth driving to, so we don’t waste our time puttering over to a dead end.

We were having this conversation at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California. Better known as JPL, because everything at NASA winds up with a TLA. You know—a three-letter acronym.

Anyway, JPL is NASA’s robotic-spacecraft facility. It’s also where the Mars helicopter story begins. In 2013, JPL’s director Charles Elachi saw a talk.

BOB: [00:03:37] / there was a presentation about what was then the hot new thing, about drones. And he came back to the lab and he said, like, “Hey, can we do this on Mars?”

Bob Balaram is the helicopter’s designer and chief engineer. He and a small team put together a proposal for this helicopter idea.

Very few people thought it was a good idea.

BOB: (cont’d) /at every stage of the game, you know, / we could always have been canceled at any step, right?

[00:10:16] /there are dimensions to this which are not just, / “can it fly?”  

[00:08:48] / it’s not just an aircraft flying on Mars, it also happens to be a spacecraft. So everything that goes with the space business—vibration testing, / shock testing, radiation, temperature extremes/—that was/ a much bigger add-on than just the fundamental/ feasibility of, can you spin something fast enough to have it generate lift.

[00:10:16 cont’d] / Like, you don’t want to be this thing that breaks apart and, you know, damages the main rover. You don’t want to be this thing that has batteries exploding. You don’t want to be this embarrassment that goes there and fizzles. 

[00:13:21] / So the scientists / hated us in the beginning. 

[00:13:21 (out of order)] / They were upset because we were taking away precious time from the science campaign. 

(cont’d from earlier) / I think if we had failed somewhere along the way, it would’ve been a footnote and they’d have been perfectly happy. / 

But Balaram pacified the doubters by reassuring them that the project would be small and limited. The helicopter would fly five times, tops, within a period of 30 days, max.

And after five flights? End of project. NASA’s focus would fully return to the rover’s primary mission: digging up samples and looking for signs of ancient life.

BOB: [00:16:45] /… and then you guys can get on. There’s not going to be this mission creep where it’s going to be one more flight, one more flight.

So the helicopter idea got some funding and a small staff. It was classified as a “technology demo,” a NASA category meaning, “tech ideas that may one day become useful to our main missions, but for now, are just experiments.” Here’s how Teddy Tzanetos explains it:

TEDDY: [00:25:59] / We do not have mission-critical goals that we must execute, like the rover, for example, right? The Perseverance Rover, its goal is to collect samples so that the next mission /, can bring samples back to Earth. That must succeed. Ingenuity did not need to succeed. 

To manage the project, Balaram teamed up with our friend Mimi Aung. 

BOB: [00:56:39] / MiMi Aung is a force of nature that no programmatic, financial, political thing could withstand, right? And she was, you know, the sharp point of the spear, / that was just able to push through all the obstacles. 

Mimi Aung taught me what a balancing act it is to create a Mars copter. I mean, you’re limited in its size—to what can fit underneath the rover, because that’s how the chopper was going to get to Mars. 

The limited space limited the size of the propellers, to about four feet long. And that meant that this thing couldn’t be designed like a regular consumer drones, with four propellers at the corners. There just wasn’t room. The propellers would have to be stacked, one above the other. Mimi Aung walked me through the design in JPL’s kind of noisy facility.

POGUE: 13:02:16 I would imagine that it’s a very fine line you’re walking, right? I mean, you could put a bigger battery in there, but that would make it heavier– too heavy to fly. So you could make the wings smaller, but that would make it not powerful enough to fly, you know? /

AUNG: 13:02:33 You– you have nailed it. (LAUGH) This is the ultimate exercise in system engineering. /

POGUE: 13:10:08 Was there ever anyone who said, “Forget it, Mimi. We’re not– (LAUGH) we’re not gonna walk that tightrope. It’s not gonna work”?

AUNG: /11:10:38 So, yes, there were difficult moments. (LAUGH) More than moments. (LAUGHTER) /

POGUE: 13:03:47 / when you add it all up with that amount of power, that amount of weight, this amount of– of rotor span, what’s the total flight time, and flight distance, and flight altitude?

AUNG: 13:04:01 So this particular helicopter is designed now to fly up to 90 seconds. And–

POGUE: 13:04:09 Ninety seconds!? $23 million for a drone (LAUGH) that can fly 90 sec– it doesn’t sound like very much!

We’ll come back to my reaction there. Let’s just say that it was not my finest moment as a forward-thinking journalist.

AUNG: 13:05:00 / So it sounds modest, as you say, but it’s an extraordinarily important– demonstration. Look, this is the first time ever that we’re flying– in an– on another planet. Flying a helicopter on another planet outside of our own earth’s atmosphere, okay? 

13:05:49 / And that– I don’t think you can put a price on that. (LAUGH) Because– ba– basically this forms the basis of the fundamental principles of flying in very thin air.

Now, this helicopter doesn’t look like a helicopter. A chopper that carries people is horizontal, with a tail. 

This machine looks more like the Apollo lunar module, but with two propellers on top. It’s 19 inches tall, all vertically stacked components. At the top, there’s a rectangular solar panel; below it are the two stacked propellers. They rotate in opposite directions for the same reason that a traditional helicopter has a rotor on the tail: To prevent the torque from making the body of the helicopter spin around.

And you cannot believe how light these propellers are. 

AUNG: 13:44:34 / So I want you to hold it.

POGUE: 13:44:39 Oh my gosh! It’s like a dead leaf! I mean, I’m not kidding! This thing— I could blow this thing like a Kleenex. That’s amazing. And that’s strong enough?

AUNG: 13:44:51 Yes. So–it had to be built for strength, as well as for the stiffness and the light weight. So when we talk about having to fit in a four-pound bag, it is not an exaggeration. /

These blades are not just made of carbon fiber, which already has one of the best strength-to-weight ratios known to man. It’s hollow carbon fiber. There’s foam inside to make it even lighter.

Then, below the propellers, a cube, known as the fuselage.

POGUE: 13:40:15 And so what all is in that box? So camera, electronics, batteries…?

AUNG: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). 13:40:48 / So if you open, take out the outer shell of it, you will see– circuit boards surrounding a battery pack.

And that’s an ingenious design decision. It gets bitterly cold at night on Mars. So NASA assembled the circuit boards around the battery, because a battery gives off heat. The hope was that it could keep the circuitry warm at night.

AUNG: 13:43:11 / And there are– two cameras that are on there. /It’s a side-looking– color camera to take images of the terrain—


AUNG: —But on the bottom is the black and white camera for navigation. 13:41:24 / And then we have landing gears, which are legs. Again, designed to be strong but light, and with some play, you know, for landing.

POGUE: Nice! I’ll take two. (LAUGHTER)

AUNG: Okay.

Part of what makes this chopper project so complicated, by the way, is that you can’t control its flight in real time. It takes anywhere from 20 minutes to four hours for a signal from the Earth to reach Mars, depending on the planets’ positions

POGUE: 13:17:28 / so you can’t be like, “Watch out for that mountain!” It’s not like that.

AUNG: 13:17:32 –absolutely not. (LAUGH) No, no. 13:18:02 / Definitely not a real-time (LAUGH) control of– or joysticking of any sources possible, simply due to the distance– /between earth and Mars.

Instead, the plan was for NASA to pre-script each helicopter flight on earth, and transmit those instructions well in advance. 

But, to me, the scariest aspect of building a Mars helicopter on earth must have been that it’s a one-off. It’s not based on any previous design. There isn’t a series of them that NASA could steadily improve. 

And there’s no spare. 

And you’re going to send this machine on a 300-million-mile journey, to a place where you’ll never be able to touch it again? No repairs, no spare parts, no shelter, no adjustments?

To make matters worse, you have to do all your testing here on earth—where the atmosphere, temperatures, solar patterns, and gravity are all different from Mars. 

So you know what NASA did? 

They used their space simulator.

AUNG: 00:00:51 We use the JPL 25-foot space simulator here. 

It’s a massive, cylindrical, stainless-steel chamber, 25 feet across and 85 feet high. It’s got an enormous door, 15 by 25 feet, big enough to accommodate the various spacecraft prototypes that NASA has tested inside since 1961, when the thing was built.

I asked Teddy Tzenetos about it.

Here’s Teddy Tzanetos.

POGUE: [00:46:36] / how close can the chamber come to simulating Mars? 

TEDDY: [00:46:53] / Pretty close. / What it provides us is the ability to suck the air out. / And you can carefully adjust the amount of air that you want to match the density or the pressure at Mars. So that takes care of one part of the equation, is the air density. 

What he’s calling air, by the way, is basically carbon dioxide. CO2 is 95% of the Mars atmosphere.

TEDDY (cont’d) The second part is the temperature. / Around the perimeter, along the inside edge are all of these fins that run the entire height of the chamber. Those fins can carry inside of them liquid nitrogen to chill the chamber down, right? So that takes care of the second part of of feeling like Mars, right?

[00:48:36] / So, so the third part is / the solar actual energy that’s reaching your solar panels. This chamber has a set of large powerful bulbs outside of the chamber. / you can beam down onto your spacecraft whatever sort of energy that you want. So you could simulate doing a near, near bypass the sun. / And you can dial in that energy to match and test your solar panels, test your recharge capability.  

POGUE: [00:48:35, moved from above:] But you can’t do gravity.  

TEDDY: (cont’d) / you hit the nail on the head. You can’t do gravity. We don’t, we don’t have an anti-gravity system figured out. / The closest thing that we were able to think up was a gravity offload system, right? And it’s a fancy name for effectively what is a pulley with a bunch of fishing line rolled around, it attached to a motor and a torque sensor. 

/ so this was at the top of the chamber. / So we brought the fishing line all the way down to the helicopter. And we had a little—we had a little eyelet and we tied a very secure and very well-reviewed knot, a series of knots. 

I almost named this episode, “A Very Well-Reviewed Knot.” I mean, they’ve got this helicopter, which eventually cost 80 million dollars, hanging from a piece of fishing line! I guess you really would check that knot carefully!

TEDDY: [00:50:28] / It’s like, you have the best engineers on the planet here debating knot strategy, right, on a fishing line, right? / it sounds cliché, but the entire project was hanging on the thread of a string at some point, right? If that knot failed, the helicopter would fall, hit the ground and be destroyed.  

In any case, the fishing line was designed to pull gently upward on the helicopter, continuously, always exactly enough to subtract two-thirds its weight as it flies around. Because Mars gravity is about one-third Earth gravity. 

POGUE: [00:51:57] /I guess you can’t use the, the swimming pools that the astronauts use, that— 

TEDDY: [00:52:01] That would have been a little tough. That would have been a little tough on the electronics. /

Now, if I learned anything from the movie “The Martian,” it’s that you have to watch out for windstorms on Mars. Just ask Matt Damon’s character.

Sound clip of “The Martian” windstorm

So JPL rigged the testing chamber to generate its own wind, too. They bought a bunch of computer fans—the ones inside PCs—about 900 of them—and arrayed them in a giant wall of 25-mile-an-hour wind. 

But not because they were worried about windstorms knocking things over, like in “The Martian.”

TEDDY: [00:52:26] / I love the movie. A big fan of the movie. /But most films / about dust storms / tend to overplay it. You know, it made for a great film. But you got to keep in mind, the air density is 1%. So even if you have fast gusts, fast gusts of very thin air is not imparting a lot of momentum, right? / If you have very thin air, you’re not going to have a lot of momentum, you know, transfer when the wind hit you. 

/ That just means that we’re not worried about being tipped over. Wind is a big concern when it comes to flying. / We do care about winds, you know, from a stability or controls perspective. / 

By early 2020, the Mars helicopter was flying well in the test chamber—noisily, but well—

Use sound from:

—and it now had a name. As is its custom, NASA opened up a naming contest to American school students—and the winner was 14-year-old Vaneeza Rupani.

RUPANI: Ingenuity represents the most remarkable things that humanity is capable of. 

Ingenuity is a great name, but what have we learned about NASA? That’s right. They shorten all terminology. So Ingenuity soon had a nickname: Ginny. 

Another kid’s essay won naming rights to the rover—Perseverance. Wanna guess its nickname? Yup. Percy.

Finally, on July 30, 2020, everything was ready. The Mars 2020 mission lifted off. It was like a set of Russian nesting dolls: The helicopter was nestled beneath the rover, which itself was inside a landing jetpack, which was packed into a landing capsule, which was stored at the top of an Atlas 5 rocket. 

Audio of takeoff… let it play under the following

Somehow, the Mars helicopter had made it past the bean counters and the skeptics, the physics problems and the political ones. One executive joked that the helicopter should have been called Perseverance!

I think that this much of the story has been pretty cool—but it’s nothing compared to what happened after Ingenuity reached Mars. Up next, the part where Ingenuity’s flying blew everyone away. The part where it got frozen to death 200 times. The part of the three miracles. The part you’ll hear after the ads.

Ad break

Last time you heard from me, the Perseverance rover was lifting off for its 7-month journey to Mars. And it had a stowaway: The first helicopter ever to leave the earth. It was bolted to the belly of the rover, on its side, protected by a cover that, once you take it off, looks kinda like a guitar case with the lid missing.

The whole package arrived at Mars going 12,000 miles an hour. How NASA got from there to setting the rover down onto the Mars surface gently, without stirring up any dust that would have gotten on its cameras, is a story in itself—and an episode of “Unsung Science” in itself, from last season. 

{{{{{{{From the Mars Landing episode—a super truncated version of the landing sequence:


/ Parachute opens.


/…and the jetpack’s eight engines light up/. 

F jetpack.aiff

/ The rover drops out of the jetpack on its nylon ropes. /

5 touchdown.aiff

NASA: Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars! Ready to begin seeking the signs of past life. (cheers)

Let the applause continue.) }}}}}}}}}}}

That was February 18, 2021. It took a month for the rover to wake up, get its bearings, and undergo testing before NASA was ready to drop Ingenuity.

The first step was kicking off the debris shield—that guitar-case thing—on March 21. Here’s integration lead Farah Alibay, giving a press conference.

Farah: / And what you’re looking at here is the debris shield on the ground. / But what’s the coolest thing is you can see ingenuity there, all tucked in below the rover, doing okay. / Everything is all in place.

The rover, with the helicopter still underneath, spent a couple of days driving to the spot that NASA had picked out for…the copter drop.

FARAH (cont’d) / And then when we get there, we’re going to go through a series of steps to get the helicopter from its current horizontal position all the way to being vertical and then being dropped on the ground. /

Finally, the bottom of the helicopter was allowed to swing down 90 degrees, into an upright position. The connecting bolt blew off with a small explosive, and Ginny dropped a couple of inches to the ground. 

bolt noise

At this point, the rover drove a hundred yards away, leaving the copter alone and shivering. 

Now it was time for Ingenuity’s first big test. No, not zooming off into the ruddy Mars sky. According to Teddy Tzanetos, the first big challenge—

TEDDY: [00:20:17] /…is surviving the first night, okay? Mars is so cold that the sheer problem of just, hey, keep enough heat in the system and make sure you have enough energy in your battery tanks to warm the battery overnight, right, is a huge—was a huge challenge. It still is a huge challenge. 

During the day, summertime on Mars is nice—in the 60s or 70s Fahrenheit. But at night—hoo boy. We’re talking negative 130. And those temperature swings are a big problem for delicate machinery.

TEDDY: [00:22:19] / every time you thermal cycle something, heat something up and then cool it down, everything expands and then contracts, expands and contracts. And just like if you were to take a metal spoon and bend it back and forth, you do that five, ten, 30 times, eventually it’ll snap. Think of now all of the electrical joints inside of Ingenuity, expanding and contracting, expanding and contracting, right? And that, that kind of gets to the core of, of one of these big milestones, is surviving the night /. 

POGUE: [00:23:14] / And we all know that, you know, electric car batteries, cell phone batteries, they all are horrible in the cold. /

TEDDY: [00:23:36] Exactly.  /so what do we do, is we conserve as much as we can. / Throughout the night, we would use a little bit of the battery energy to keep that temperature at around -20. / And then once sunrise happens, then the SOC starts climbing again.

SOC—that’s the state of charge. Meaning how full the battery is.

All told, two-thirds of Ingenuity’s battery power goes to keeping the thing warm at night. Only one-third is actually used for flying!

Anyway, Ginny did survive the first night. And the first two months of nights. Finally, on April 19, it was ready to take its first flight. The plan was to spin the rotors up to over 2500 rpm, fast enough to lift the whole machine slowly, majestically, into the sky! 

Well, OK—slowly, majestically 10 feet off the ground. 

And there it was supposed to hover for a magnificent 39 seconds, take a couple of pictures, and then land. 

The thing is, at this point, Mars was so far away from the earth that it would take any messages from the helicopter four hours to arrive! 

So for four hours after the flight, the NASA team had no idea whether or not its $80 million drone had even flown. For all they knew, it was a pile of twisted metal in the dust.

First flight 1.aiff

Tim: Earlier today, the helicopter flew. As it was flying and after it landed, it transferred its data to the base station. When it shows up, our team can take that data and decode it, and see what happened during that flight.

This is how the live YouTube broadcast went from JPL, as Mimi Aung, Teddy Tzanetos, Bob Balaram, and their team waited for the news from Mars. 

First flight 2.aiff (continue through the VO below)

ANN: We’re moments away from getting that all-important data, and the anticipation’s definitely building in the room.

Down: This is downlink. We are beginning to fetch the data from Mars 2020.

Flight: This is flight control. Ingenuity is reporting having performed spinup, takeoff, climb, hover, descent, landing, touchdown, and spindown. (applause) Confirmed that Ingenuity has performed its first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet!

That data was pretty cool—but not as cool as the data that showed up next: a picture. 

(crowd roars)

Terr: So the image we’re looking at on the screen is/ showing us hovering above the surface of Mars. How incredible! The onboard navigation camera points straight down, so we’re seeing its shadow right now.

ANN: I can just hear Mimi in the background, “This is real! This is real!” It’s so amazing!

TERR: We’re gonna wait for the Perseverance rover image of us.

That would be… a photo taken by the rover, of the helicopter in flight.

Crowd loses its mind

It was actually a bunch of frames, kind of like a GIF—a jerky little movie of the first flight. 

And that… was the first time a human-made aircraft had ever flown under its own power on a distant world.

On Flight #2, three days later, Ginny went a little higher—16 feet—and flew sideways for the first time. 7 feet out, then 7 feet back to the start. Flawless.

Flight #3: 4.5 mph, 328 feet. 

Flight #4: 887 feet. This time, another first: the rover’s microphones recorded the sound of Ingenuity. 

Copter sounds.aiff

Flight #5: Ingenuity flew to a new landing spot for the first time, 430 feet away.

Clearly, something spectacular was happening. There’d been a couple of little glitches, which NASA fixed with software upgrades—but otherwise, this thing was performing like a champ. Didn’t crash, didn’t fall over, survived the frigid Mars nights.

The skeptics around Bob Balaram had begun to soften.

BOB: [00:16:45] / in those five flights, we proved our merit. We proved our worth, right? And that’s when things started changing, right? And that’s when the scientists said, “Oh, this thing actually works. Oh, those images are pretty darn cool. We can actually infer some geology from them, and we can decide where to send the rover.” 

One scientist, who’d publicly slammed the helicopter as a waste of time and money, actually approached Balaram at JPL.

BOB: [00:13:21] / he was man enough to just say, you know, “you guys proved me wrong.” /

Ingenuity’s mission was to fly five times and then shut up forever. Go off and crash somewhere. But suddenly, that seemed like a waste. 

In fact, the scientists wondered if maybe Ingenuity could do some real scouting for the rover? They wanted to know if a region known as Seitah (SAY-ta) would be worth rovering over to. Answering that question would mean flying Ginny much faster and farther than ever before. 

BOB: [00:18:14] / it was a calculated risk on my part, because my take on it was if we succeeded in that flight, that would seal the science case once and for all. And we did that. We did that long flight. / we went across the region of Seitah and we did the forward scouting for them. 

[00:19:22] / once the scientists saw those images, they were completely on our side, you know, and then they started asking us to go here, go there. / [00:13:21] /  We kept succeeding, so they couldn’t get rid of us! 

Suddenly this little black-sheep technology demo found its classification upgraded—to an operational demo. And its 30-day lease on life was upgraded, too—now the project was extended seven months, to at least September 2021. It was going to participate in the actual mission of exploring Mars! 

TEDDY: [01:01:34] / there was an area called Raised Ridges / that the rover team was potentially interested in exploring, but they weren’t quite sure. And we flew out there. We took some images and we found out, no, it wasn’t as interesting as they thought it was. That’s a win. That’s time saved from the rover. /Flight 13, we were able to fly around an outcrop called Faillefeu and generate a three—beautiful three-dimensional map that you can look up online and you can zoom around in in three dimensions/. 

Little Ginny was no longer a freak, an orphan, a nuisance. 

TEDDY: [01:04:51] now we’re for real, right? Now we have real mission objectives and the stakes are much higher. 

For Ingenuity, it was a miracle—the first of three.

Ingenuity kept flying through the summer, getting better and doing more. On Flight 12, it flew for nearly 3 minutes—so much for that 90-second thing. 

On Flight 18, it flew farther and faster than ever before: almost half a mile, at 12.3 miles an hour.

Throughout these flights, Ginny sent a steady stream of photos back to earth: Of craters, of deltas, of the parachute and other landing gear from Mars 2020 itself. The team kept improving its software with updates—for example, to allow it to fly higher, to let it change speed in mid-flight, and to understand the terrain below it better.

Now, remember: NASA had designed the helicopter to survive for only 30 sols. A sol, S-O-L, is one Mars day. See, a Mars day is about 24 and a half hours, so we can’t really use the word “day”; we’d get that confused with earth days. So the word is “sol.” 

As the May sols flowed into the warmer sols of June, warmer weather just made it easier for Ingenuity to stay warm. 

TEDDY: [00:31:44] We would charge during the morning and then, hey, we’d be at 100% state of charge by 1:00 in the afternoon. Great.  

As the mission progressed, we went into the summer. Things got even better in the summer. We had excess energy. / We call it Leaving Energy on the panel. 

But everybody knew it couldn’t last. 

TEDDY: [00:25:59] no one designed for winter ops on Mars. She was designed to operate in spring and, and nowhere outside. /

In winter, the sun is lower in the sky, which means less light falling onto the solar panel …and on Mars, there’s more dust in the atmosphere in winter, which also means less sunlight hitting the panel.

TEDDY: [00:33:02] /  So we’re not charging as much. And because it’s colder, we’re using more energy to stay at the same temperature, right?  

/ we knew that we were going to run into a problem here where we might reach our limit. And on sol 426, we hit that limit. We went to sleep on sol 426 with about 70% state of charge in our battery. It was so cold that night. / And we were burning energy, burning energy, burning energy. / And the battery drained all the way to zero. We stopped heating ourselves. / In the Ingenuity mission on sol 427, we tried talking to her, and she didn’t reply. 

So that was it. The copter was unresponsive and frozen. After a spectacular 427 Mars days and 28 flights, little Ingenuity was dead.

POGUE: [00:44:32] So did you do any, like, little micro-mourning, like, “Well, that’s it. It was a good run”? Or are you trained not to get emotionally involved? 

TEDDY: [00:44:42] / There’s always that question in the back of your mind, you know, did we get to the end of the mission? / [00:36:07] /There’s a part of you that’s always emotionally prepared in the background, right, to …to call it. /OK, let’s assess. Let’s analyze, let’s find out what happened, let’s see what we can learn from it. 

For three days, the team threw themselves into studying what went wrong.

TEDDY: [00:36:07] / pulling up the schematics, pulling up the designs, and trying to come up with any explanation, any reasonable explanation that we could to to explain what was happening. 

You know how, in movies, there’s that trope where the hero starts frantically giving CPR to revive his best friend, who’s been shot? But the hero’s so overcome with grief that he keeps CPR-ing way too long, way past the point where everyone else realizes the buddy is dead? 

Scene like that.

It was kinda like that. The comms team spent day after day frantically pinging their baby on Mars, desperately hoping for a response.

And then…on the third day…they got one. 

Ingenuity responded. Somehow, it was alive—and taking commands again.

TEDDY: [00:36:07] / We wiggled our blades. We did a high speed spin just to confirm that everything was still healthy. 

It was the most incredible thing—and eventually, they figured out what was happening.

Each night, Ingenuity really was freezing. The battery really was dead, so there was no longer anything to keep the electronics warm.

But each morning, the solar panel started collecting energy, and Ingenuity thawed out. 

TEDDY: [00:36:07] / What was happening is that every morning it was like Groundhog Day. The sun would rise. She’d have 0% state of charge in her batteries. 

But by pure luck—or pure design brilliance—Ingenuity has a little circuit that directs the first trickle of energy to the battery. Bob Balaram calls it the Lazarus circuit.

BOB: [00:21:14] / So the piece of circuitry that we call the Lazarus circuits, which divert this solar power to first warm up the battery and thaw it out, and when the battery gets to about / -13 degrees Fahrenheit, roughly, it then starts charging of the battery.  

So basically there is a piece of old fashioned electronics, you know—no digital, no computer, no nothing—that brings the helicopter back from the dead every single morning. 

Once the battery is warm enough, it begins to charge, and the electronics come to life. 

So why hadn’t Ingenuity been responding to pings from earth? Because each night when it died of cold, its clock got reset to zero. So when NASA sent its morning commands at the usual time, the helicopter didn’t know it was time to listen! 

TEDDY: [00:36:07] / And that’s what was happening, is that Ingenuity was waking up later on in the afternoon, / and / she was waiting, you know, for commands as if nothing had ever changed, right? It was just another day. Just happened to be later on in the afternoon than usual. 

Once the team on Earth realized that, they tried reworking the timing of the commands.

Bob: (cont’d) We catch the helicopter at that time, talk to it, set the clock. And then during the rest of the day, where it’s still warm, we then schedule a flight for or any other activity for late in the afternoon. And it does its job, goes into the night thinking it’s going to get through the night. But, you know, / we know that around midnight or something it’s gonna die. And then it comes back to life every single morning. /

Ingenuity continued freezing to death every night…and rising from the dead in the morning…and it kept right on flying…through the entire winter. For 150 days and nights—until the weather began to warm up again. 

Now, incredibly, Ingenuity is no longer freezing at night—it’s returned to its original heating and flying patterns! This chopper will…not…die! 

It was Ingenuity’s second miracle. 

But as promised, there is a third one. This technology demo, this dark horse, this waste of money…has a third act.

See, the primary mission of the Perseverance rover is collecting samples of dirt and rocks, and to put them into airtight tubes. But collecting the samples is only Number 1 of three missions that will get those samples back to earth.

Number 2, possibly launching in 2028, is called Mars SRL, the sample retrieval lander. That is, a spaceship that will land on the surface of Mars.

BOB: [00:44:23] /  the Perseverance will trundle up to the lander, present the samples to a little robot arm on the lander, which will carefully take those tubes and stick them in a canister that will then be mounted into the Mars ascent vehicle. And then, you know, the Mars ascent vehicle eventually takes off. 

And Mars mission number 3 will be a ship in Mars orbit that intercepts those samples and flies them back to earth.

But with a project this big and expensive and complicated, it’s really scary to have it all lie on the shoulders of the Perseverance rover. I mean, it’s a fantastic rover, and it’s been performing like a champ. But by 2028, it will have been driving around in the rocks and the dust for eight years, and any number of things could have gone wrong. NASA needed a backup plan for getting those sample tubes onto the lander.

And can you guess what the backup plan is? Two…more… helicopters. 

BOB: (cont’) / So what’s being designed right now, is a variant of Ingenuity that has the capability to do this. / 

[00:47:37] And you would have effectively a claw or an arm that would grab one tube at a time. So we are basically adding on four wheels. And a small robot arm to Ingenuity, that Ingenuity design. 

And we’ll have two of those for redundancy /. They’re called sample recovery helicopters. SRH. I tend to think of them as ‘Sarah.’ It’s–the Ingenuity was Ginny. We’re going to have two ‘Sarahs’ on Mars helping. 

Even the Sarahs aren’t the end of the Mars chopper line. Balaram is also working on a much bigger copter, capable of carrying ten pounds of science equipment into the air. It’s currently called the Mars Science Helicopter.

BOB: [00:41:48] / the JPL is interested in saying like, “How do we scale it up, okay? / And let’s see what such a system design might look like.”  And I was leading a team that did that study and continues to do that study. / it would look effectively like a hexacopter, with effectively each of the six blades looking roughly the same size as in Ingenuity, blade diameter, okay? /

So…Three miracles.

The first miracle was that the Ingenuity helicopter, once mocked, cursed, and dismissed as a nuisance, wound up outliving its five-flight, 30-day mandate, and became an essential part of the Mars 2020 mission.

I mean, I was the idiot who said to Mimi Aung,

POGUE: 13:04:09 Ninety seconds? $23 million for a drone (LAUGH) that can fly 90 sec– it doesn’t sound like very much!

I played that recording for Bob Balaram. He was cool about it.

BOB: [00:02:57] But that’s okay. You can join the line, a long line, of people who are skeptics. 

The second miracle was that Ingenuity refused to die, even when Mars froze it solid every single night for hundreds of nights. 

And the third miracle is… that Ingenuity now has descendants. Two will go to Mars on the sample-retrieval project, and could wind up saving the whole three-mission, multi-multi-billion-dollar arc…and a big helicopter with six giant rotors could become a primary vehicle on a future mission.

As for Ingenuity herself… she is still flying. She’s survived two dust storms and one brutal, bitterly cold winter—and she is still flying. And still breaking her own records. On December 3, 2022, she flew 46 feet off the ground.

And nobody can see any reason why she’ll ever stop.

POGUE: [00:58:53] Is there any hard death day for Ingenuity? 


POGUE: Somewhere, some consumable that will—

TEDDY: [00:59:02] No, your guess is—and I’m very serious when I say this—your guess is as good as mine. We’re well outside of the manufacturer’s original warranty window, right? That 30 sols really was the design point.  

But I’m very happy to say that our batteries are extremely healthy, / Our solar panels are doing well, our motors are still performing extremely well. / Our computer system, / is still performing just fine as it was on the first day. So there is no hard date, there is no key consumable. / But when that day does come and it will come, we’re going to have a massive party. 

BOB: [00:34:00] If we had failed, no big deal, it would have been a footnote. You know, we would have been saying, “oh, yeah, they tried to fly a helicopter and it got two feet above the ground and tipped over and crashed, a ha ha,” you know. And then maybe the social media would have had a field day for a few days and then they would have gone on to the next thing. 

This may be a good time to reveal the secret of Ingenuity’s ballast. A little Bob Balaram easter egg. 

BOB: [00:49:24] / when we were building Ingenuity, I wanted to have some kind of token of appreciation. A talisman /  paying homage to the pioneers who came before.  

He learned that it was possible to buy a piece of cloth from the wing of the first airplane that ever flew on earth—the Wright Brothers’ Wright Flyer.

BOB: / Apparently, the Wright brothers were, you know, they were auctioning pieces of fabric from the first flyer to raise money. You know, fundraising never goes away in this business. 

And so, so we got a piece of the fabric. /  and we basically cut out a small piece. / you know, half inch by half inch kind of swatch. And that’s wrapped up in some tape and tied to a little cable bundle under the solar panel. 

[00:51:37 (moved up) I had my engineers sworn to secrecy. 

(cont’d) And so that same piece of fabric flew about a half a dozen times on Kitty Hawk /, so it flew five times there and it’s flown 33 times on Mars. That little piece of fabric. / there’s a lot of parallels, by the way, between what our team had to face and what the Wright brothers faced. /

Balaram and Tzaentos are still at JPL, building insanely cool rotorcraft. But in the summer of 2021, Amazon poached Mimi Aung from NASA…hired her to oversee its plan to launch a constellation of satellites—over 3 thousand of them—to provide internet service. 

But Balaram believes that cool, bold projects like Ingenuity are important to NASA’s future—and to its ability to attract young engineers.

BOB: [01:00:17] / it’s a very real issue, by the way, in terms of our retention of people, in terms of what we can offer. You know, kids, people, go to Amazon or here or there and they build some gadget to deliver a brown box into your doorstep, you know, but they get paid twice as much or something, right? And—

POGUE: [01:01:05] Yeah. Yeah. 

BOB: [01:01:06] How do you compete with that? /

POGUE: Well, the next time you’re interviewing someone, you can say, “Do you want to engineer something that drops off brown boxes on front porches, or do you want to deliver something to Mars, like I did?”

BOB: [01:02:52] You know, it’s—it’s—it’s true. [01:04:36] Packages to Mars versus packages to your front doorstep is still the hook. But it doesn’t mean that/ we should not be thinking about exciting, good ways of making that happen. /Hopefully we’ll learn some things from Ingenuity and take that into everything else we do. 

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