A “Wright Brothers” Moment 117 Years Later
On July 30, 2020, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched a rover named Perseverance, seeking a landing on Mars. Inside of the rover was a small helicopter named Ingenuity. On the 18th of February 2021, they landed. Then, on Monday, April 19, 2021, Ingenuity attempted the first-ever flight on Mars. The historic flight lasted for thirty seconds and flew ten feet in the air. Ingenuity is now the first powered, controlled craft to fly on another planet, prompting many, including NASA, to call its flight a “Wright Brothers moment.” NASA is even calling the location of Ingenuity’s first flight “Wright Brothers Field,” referring to the two Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, who, in 1903,were the first people to successfully make a controlled, sustained flight. In a little over a hundred years we have gone from flying planes in North Carolina to flying helicopters on Mars. “It feels nuts,” says Farah Alibay, a systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “We’ve been flying on Earth for just over 100 years, and now we’re like, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna go to another planet and fly’. It’s crazy. But that’s the beauty of exploration. That’s the beauty of engineering.”.
Even once Ingenuity completed its first flight, the control center at JPL didn’t get a video right away. At first, all they had was data, through which they were able to tell that Ingenuity’s flight was successful. Soon after, a video was sent, taken by Perseverance. After seven years of work, Ingenuity’s flight was emotional for NASA and for people around the world.
Ingenuity’s parent rover, Perseverance, is about the size of a car and weighs 2,260 pounds. It is the fifth rover to make its way to Mars. It was in charge of sending a video of Ingenuity’s flight back to Earth, though it also had its own separate mission to collect data to see if there is or was ever any microbial life on Mars. So far, it has not found any. It will also collect rock samples that will be sent back to earth.
Ingenuity has been doing more test flights on Mars since its first. On Thursday, April 22, during its second flight, it stayed in the air for 51.9 seconds, and instead of hovering only ten feet above the surface, flew sixteen feet. It also performed a slight tilt at 5-degrees, allowing for some of the thrust from the counter-rotating rotors to accelerate the craft sideways for seven feet. Basically, the helicopter flew up in the air, came to a stop, hovered in place, turned, then flew back down. That may sound simple, but there were so many unknowns since Ingenuity was flying on Mars. Its third flight, on Sunday, April 25, was different from either flight before it. The craft rose sixteen feet in the air, however, instead of just hovering there, it flew 164 feet, roughly half the size of a football field, and reached a top speed of 6.6 feet per second. The team that has been working with Ingenuity has been pushing the craft’s limits, including having it take color photographs. Ingenuity was a high risk project but also a highly rewarding one. Its success is huge for learning more about Mars and the galaxy we live in. NASA is hoping to build helicopters just like Ingenuity to send to one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, and one of Saturn’s moons, Titan. A project to Europa could be happening by 2024 and a project to Titan by 2027. Both of these projects will be looking to see if either moon could be habitable. They will also be searching for alien life, because who knows, maybe we are not alone in this galaxy and we never knew it. We will only find out if we look, because we learn nothing if we don’t seek to learn.