The Wright Stuff on Mars is a nice play on words, combining the historical event of the Wright Brothers first flight near Kittyhawk, North Carolina in 1903, and the legends surrounding the first U.S. astronauts. I wish I had coined it but I didn’t. It was the headline in a recent “Economist” article.
News stories about “drones” have become so normal that they rarely make the headlines anymore, unless they collide with something important, like a passenger airliner. However, this story has a significance way beyond just another drone episode, particularly as the flight was a mere 3 feet. The Wright Brothers managed 120 feet over a hundred years ago. The difference is that the Wright Brothers flight was on Earth, and the Drone’s was on Mars.
Aside from the “minor” achievements of getting to Mars, 189.92 million miles depending where the two planets are in their orbits, hitting a moving target from a moving base, landing on the surface without crashing, and releasing the “Ingenuity” without running over it with the “Rover”, actually flying it is an enormous undertaking in itself, and deserves more accolades than it is currently receiving.
The atmosphere of Mars is one hundredth (1/100) the density of Earth’s atmosphere. High school physics will tell you the only reason planes and helicopters can fly on Earth is because of the “lift” their wings and rotors give when cutting through the atmosphere. Without the atmosphere even birds cannot fly.
The rotors of the “Ingenuity” have to spin five-times faster than they would need to on Earth, to give sufficient lift in the Martian atmosphere. That requires more efficient rotors, way more power. Just to keep the small helicopter under control in such conditions requires hundreds of flight control adjustments every second, and that takes a significant amount of on-board computing power. Command signals from Earth take a minimum of 5 minutes to reach Mars so remote control is impossible. The fact that the flight worked perfectly the first time, and continues to work as we write and read, is a miracle, and a big one at that.
NASA is already planning another helicopter flight in 2026. This time on Jupiter’s planet “Titan” and that helicopter, named “Dragonfly”, will carry scientific instruments and have eight (8) rotor blades instead of Ingenuity’s two (2).
I thought it was a nice touch that Ingenuity carries a small piece of cloth from the Wright Brothers’ plane, and NASA has named Ingenuity’s aerodrome on Mars “Wright Brothers Field”.
We should all celebrate this remarkable achievement and take pride in humankind’s ingenuity.