The Mars Helicopter Ingenuity made the first powered, controlled flight on another planet today. Discover the challenges the flight overcame and the next steps for the mission.
I remember a new fad in the toy business back in the mid-90s. The company behind it was called AirHogs, and they were based here in Canada. My brothers and I were in our 30s and 40s, but we weren’t too old to compare our piloting skills with these fun little gadgets.
Airhogs were a line of indoor, remote-control aircraft. Most of their early products were delicate tiny helicopters. It took a lot of skill to control them with the controllers they came with, especially when the helicopter’s batteries were low, which, frankly, was most of the time.
The micro-choppers were far too flimsy to try to fly outdoors. Looking back, I find it interesting that electric, remote control toy cars came out in the 70s. Yet, it took another two decades to develop these fragile indoor helicopters.
First Mars Rover Landed There Twenty Years Ago
Something similar has been going on at NASA. The first Mars rover landed there just over twenty years ago. We’ve seen several others since then.
Even so, no aircraft has flown on Mars, even though the first lander, Viking 1, arrived there in 1976. In fact, no flights have taken place on the Moon or any other body in our solar system.
Until today! The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) confirmed this morning that NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter made humanity’s first powered, controlled flight on another planet. They received the data from Ingenuity via the Perseverance Mars Rover at 6:46 am EDT.
Light Time Makes It Impossible for Pilots to Operate
As always, since radio waves travel at the fixed speed of light, the one-way light time was about 15 minutes between Earth and Mars. This light time makes it impossible for pilots to operate Ingenuity or any of the Mars rovers remotely.
All of these vehicles operate autonomously, based on their onboard sensors and internal programming. Everyone at JPL Ground Control had to wait helplessly, knowing that the flight had already either succeeded or failed, for the data to arrive.
When the data came in, a standing ovation erupted. It showed that Ingenuity had lifted 3 metres off the ground, hovered in place, turned and then lightly touched down on Mars about 40 seconds later. It also snapped a picture while it was in flight.
Wright Brothers’ Flight Only Lasted Twelve Seconds
That may not sound like much more than our Airhogs could muster back in the day, but readers should remember that the Wright Brothers’ first flight only lasted twelve seconds. Speaking of the Wright Brothers, they were on everyone’s mind during both the planning and the execution of the flight.
The NASA team attached a small patch of muslin fabric from Flyer 1, the Wright brothers’ original airplane, to shield a cable beneath the helicopter’s solar panel. NASA’s Associate Administrator for Science, Thomas Zurbuchen, announced after the successful flight that “as an homage to the two innovative bicycle makers from Dayton, this first of many airfields on other worlds will now be known as Wright Brothers Field, in recognition of the ingenuity and innovation that continue to propel exploration.”
As an additional tribute, the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) presented the new helicopter with an official designator, IGY, with the radio call-sign INGENUITY. Wright Brothers Field, which is in Mars’ Jezero Crater, will also receive an honorary listing in the ICAO’s facility directory, with the codename JZRO.
Flying on Mars Poses Some Unique Challenges
Ingenuity weighs about four pounds, and its blades are roughly 1.2 metres (four feet) long. Flying on Mars poses some unique challenges even for cutting-edge aircraft like Ingenuity.
Mars has only one-third of Earth’s gravity. It also barely has an atmosphere, with less than 1% of our planet’s density.
Fewer air molecules mean that Ingenuity’s blades have minimal material to work with to generate lift. So, this first flight was far from a sure thing. Many technical assumptions were put to the test, which is why the JPL team was relieved and elated when they learned about Ingenuity’s success.
‘Ingenuity’ is a Technology Demonstration Project
Ingenuity doesn’t have any real work to do on this mission. It’s what NASA calls a technology demonstration project. It’s on Mars to assess the feasibility of aerial observation surveys of the Red Planet. So far, the answer seems to be a resounding “yes!”
Everyone loves the story of a hero’s journey. Even when our heroes are plucky robots instead of humans, we still cheer them on like the hometown team.
Also, we all ask ourselves the same questions. We want to know our place in our Universe and whether we’re alone in it. The focus of the Perseverance mission, of which Ingenuity is a part, is astrobiology, which is the science that tries to answer these fundamental human questions.
Future Test Flights Will Put ‘Ingenuity’ Through Its Paces
NASA plans to have Ingenuity run another four flights over the next two weeks. Each of these future test flights will put Ingenuity through its paces at higher altitudes and with more elaborate maneuvers.
As with many test missions, once the essential goals have been achieved, the team can start taking additional risks. They can also do more thinking outside of the box. Engineer Mimi Aung is Ingenuity’s project manager.
She explained, “Once we get to the fourth and fifth flights, we’ll have fun,” Ms. Aung said. “We really want to push the limits. It’s not every day that you get to test a rotor-craft on Mars. So we want to be very adventurous.”
“Orville and Wilbur Got Back to Work – And So Will We”
Ms. Aung set the tone by saying, “We will take a moment to celebrate our success and then take a cue from Orville and Wilbur regarding what to do next. History shows they got back to work – to learn as much as they could about their new aircraft – and so will we.”
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
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