A new era of flight on other worlds
The first flight of a helicopter on Mars will mark the beginning of a new milestone in aviation history. To that end, it carries a piece of fabric from the first powered aircraft on Earth, the Wright Flyer.
NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter is the first aircraft using power designed to fly on another planet. While there have been many landers on Mars, none have been able to lift off the ground and survey the landscape from the air. If successful, powered flight would open a whole new realm of exploration on Mars.
To honour that milestone, a small patch of cloth taken from the original Wright flyer that made the first powered flight on Earth in 1903, is attached to Ingenuity to symbolically pass the torch to the first powered flight on another planet.
But “powered” is the key word here, because there have been flights on another world carried out by balloon back in 1985.
First non-powered flights
In an ambitious, international project called Vega, the Soviet Union released two descent modules down to the hellishly hot surface of Venus. On the way down, the probes released balloons that floated in the upper atmosphere at an altitude of about 50 kilometres for about two days, studying atmospheric composition, temperatures and winds.
It is fitting that the first flight on another planet was by balloon because that’s how Étienne Montgolfier first ascended into the sky on our planet, in a hot air balloon in 1783, 120 years before the Wright brothers.
Balloon flight has been proposed for Mars by the European Space Agency, but with advances in drone technology, the helicopter got there first.
Proof of concept
Ingenuity is only a technology demonstrator, which means its prime mission is to prove that it can actually fly in the thin Martian atmosphere, which is only one per cent as dense as Earth. It has to hover and move in a controlled manner and most importantly, land softly. The vehicle will only fly a few metres off the ground in short hops lasting no more than 90 seconds.
Piloting an aircraft on Mars is not easy because the distance between the two planets is so great there is a time delay of up to 20 minutes each way while the radio signal crosses interplanetary space. So all the flight commands have to be programmed into the vehicle’s computer ahead of time before it heads off on its own.
Anyone who has flown a radio controlled aircraft will tell you, just one wrong move on the joystick can have catastrophic results. So the flying commands have to be exactly right. That’s why the scientists are being very cautious with the first flights of Ingenuity.
A bird’s eye view
But oh the places we could go.
While Mars is one of the smaller planets in the solar system, only about half the size of Earth, it has the most extreme geography. An extinct volcano, Olympus Mons, is more than twice as high as Mt. Everest.
Imagine flying through a steep-walled canyon, Valles Marineris, that runs for thousands of kilometres with cliffs towering many kilometres above the valley floor.
Then there are the frozen ice caps at the north and south poles.
The next flight frontier
Beyond Mars, the next world to be explored with a helicopter is not a planet at all. Titan, a moon of Saturn, has a thick nitrogen atmosphere, which makes flying much easier.
A mission called Dragonfly is due to launch in 2026 and arrive on Titan in 2034. The eight bladed drone helicopter will be much larger and fly above Titan’s bizarre liquid methane lakes and organic-rich soils that might just contain the precursors of life.
Balloons could also make a comeback in the distant future as they could be the best way to explore the swirling clouds of the giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, which are made almost entirely out of gas.
Flight has enabled humans to reach every part of planet Earth. Now we could be on the cusp of future aerial adventures around other planets as well.