NASA Reaches for the Wright Stuff

An illustration of NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter flying on Mars.

An illustration of NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter flying on Mars. JPL-Caltech/NASA

Just being able to successfully hover off the ground will be a huge victory for the Ingenuity helicopter.

Back when people used to take vacations more regularly, one of my most favorite trips my wife and I took was down to the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Exploring the quaint seaside towns of Duck, Corolla, Kill Devil Hills and the surrounding area was both relaxing and exciting at the same time. We also discovered the most wonderful fried chicken and meatball pizza on Earth, which was an unexpected surprise.

One of the pinnacles of that trip for me was a visit to the Wright Brothers National Memorial, where two bicycle-making brothers built and flew the first powered aircraft. They choose their location in Kitty Hawk because of its strong winds (they blow almost constantly at about 15 miles per hour), its relative isolation away from human structures that might hinder their flight (which is still somewhat true today, though the area is much more developed) and the fact that the seemingly endless sand dunes (many of which are from 7,000 to 12,000 years old, remnants of the last ice age) provided soft ground for their many anticipated crashes and hard landings.

On Dec. 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright made their first successful powered flight, and the world changed forever. By the time World War I rolled around, airplanes were a key military element. By World War II, not only were aircraft the key to winning any war, but they also enabled flights around the world in a relatively short period of time. Today we almost take air travel for granted, but back in 1903, many people didn’t even think it was possible.

Today there is a memorial standing on the site where the first flight took place, and a plaque commemorating the event. You can easily stroll down that original flight path, which is only 120-feet long. It’s amazing to think that 12 seconds of powered flight changed the world.

I was thinking about my time at Kitty Hawk this week because NASA is set to make its own planetary first flight, only this time the planet is Mars. The Ingenuity helicopter was dropped off from its nest below the Perseverance rover and survived its first full night alone on the red planet. That is no small feat in itself since the temperatures can drop to minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit at night, which is cold enough to freeze and crack unprotected electronics.

In a lot of ways, the Jezero Crater where Ingenuity will take flight is a lot like Kitty Hawk. Although it’s much less of a vacation spot, it’s certainly empty of any structures or tall hills that the helicopter might crash into. And although we have already heard the sound of wind on Mars, that won’t help Ingenuity. The Martian soil is also a lot rougher than the sandy shores of the Outer Banks, though it should provide some cushioning for hard landings.

A few years ago the project manager for the Ingenuity helicopter explained why flight on Mars, or on most planets outside of Earth’s relatively welcoming atmosphere, is so difficult. 

“The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet. The atmosphere of Mars is only 1% that of Earth, so when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it’s already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up,” said Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be.”

Like the Wright brother’s first flight, Ingenuity won’t be high in the Martian atmosphere for very long. Just being able to successfully hover off the ground will be a huge victory, though engineers at JPL have a series of longer flights planned if all goes well. Ingenuity is equipped with a camera, so we might get some never-before-seen aerial shots and video of Mars over the next couple days and weeks.

Like the first Earth flight, the event on Mars may not seem all that impressive in scale. But it will set the stage for future missions, and demonstrate what is possible. Imagine a future Mars rover acting more like an aircraft carrier, deploying Mars helicopters to explore the planet for hundreds of miles in all directions before returning to base for recharging and shelter from the nighttime cold.

NASA hasn’t said when exactly the first flight will take place, but it should be soon. The safeties holding the chopper’s blades in place are scheduled to be released this week, so the first flight will likely soon follow.

In the meantime, if you are starved for space news, NASA recently enhanced an image of the Veil Nebula taken by the Hubble Telescope to bring out the fine details of the nebula's delicate threads and filaments of ionized gas. The resulting image is incredible and makes me yearn for the day when humans will be able to explore space and find wonders like that in places very far away from our tiny home world. 

For now, our next big space exploration hope is sitting with a tiny helicopter on a planet 169 million miles away, waiting to take that all-important first flight. Let’s hope that Ingenuity provides a boost for space exploration technology as rapidly as the Wright Flyer did for terrestrial air travel. Because just like the people in 1903 couldn’t fathom the concept of intercontinental flights or jet aircraft, we probably don’t know what our own bright future might hold.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys