When NASA’s newest Mars-roving robotic, Perseverance, landed on the Red Planet in February, its cargo included a protracted digital checklist of “firsts.” Perseverance was the first ever spacecraft to carry out a wholly autonomous ultraprecise touchdown on one other planet. In coming months it should even be the first to aim to provide pure oxygen from the world’s skinny carbon-dioxide environment by way of its experimental MOXIE instrument. And earlier than the conclusion of Perseverance’s mission, it is going to be the first to assemble Martian samples for eventual return to Earth, probably additionally making it the first mission to uncover indicators of life past Earth. But the rover’s most spectacular first could happen subsequent week, when it’s anticipated to deploy a small, four-pound parcel from its underbelly.
That parcel is a solar-powered helicopter, referred to as Ingenuity, that can try and take flight on Mars as early as April 8. If profitable, it might function a modest airborne scout for Perseverance’s ongoing peregrinations and, in the course of, grow to be the first powered plane to ever function on one other planet and pave the method for future interplanetary missions to fly the not-so-friendly skies of worlds past.
“We’ve done everything we can here on Earth,” says Taryn Bailey, an Ingenuity mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “We’ve simulated the Mars environment. We’ve done extensive testing. We’ve studied for the exam as much as we can. Now we have to take it.”
But whereas Ingenuity could portend the future of area exploration, the tiny helicopter additionally honors the previous. Tucked beneath Ingenuity’s photo voltaic panel—wrapped round a cable and secured with insulative tape—is a small swatch of timeworn textile. Nearly 118 years in the past, this unbleached “Pride of the West” muslin material—bought at the Rike-Kumler division retailer in downtown Dayton, Ohio—was half of the 1903 Wright Flyer, the world’s first airplane.
First in Flight
Near the flip of the twentieth century, at a time when heavier-than-air flight was deemed unattainable—even loopy—two autodidactic brothers named Wilbur and Orville Wright invented the airplane in the again of their bicycle store in West Dayton.
“Wilbur began by writing to the Smithsonian Institution, asking for any information they had on flying,” says Stephen Wright, the Wright brothers’ great-grandnephew. Over the subsequent a number of years, the brothers constructed experimental gliders and manufactured a wind tunnel to conduct raise and drag assessments. “With the wind tunnel,” Stephen Wright says, “they were able to gather precise data on tiny airfoil designs, scraps of sheet metal they had lying around their bicycle shop.”
But propeller design was arguably the brothers’ hardest job. “They concluded that an air propeller was really just a rotating wing,” recalled their mechanic Charlie Taylor, who constructed the customized engine for the Wright Flyer, “and by experimenting in the wind box they arrived at the design they wanted.” Taylor’s story appeared in an article he wrote in the December 25, 1948, version of Collier’s journal.
To make their flying machine extra aerodynamic, Wilbur and Orville Wright stitched unbleached Pride of the West muslin material with a Singer stitching machine and stretched it throughout the plane’s wings, rudder and elevator. On December 17, 1903, after some 4 years of victories, setbacks and painstaking preparations, the Wright brothers lastly made the world’s first powered, managed heavier-than-air flight on the windswept seashores of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, close to the city of Kitty Hawk.
From Kitty Hawk to Mars
More than a century later, Ingenuity’s staff members see apparent parallels between their pioneering mission and that fateful first flight.
“The Wright brothers put most of their energy in the test program,” says Bob Balaram, Ingenuity’s chief engineer at JPL. “Like building the airplane, the Ingenuity test program was as much, if not more, challenging than the building of the helicopter itself. Like the Wrights, we had to build our own wind tunnel, only we used over 900 computer fans. Matt Keenan, he’s our Charlie Taylor—the mechanic who built the Wright Flyer engine. Matt hand wound the copper for each motor. Each winding took about 100 hours under a microscope.”
But additionally like the Wright brothers, earlier than the Ingenuity staff started constructing parts, it needed to decide if flight was doable, particularly on Mars, the place the environment is 99 p.c much less dense than the air on Earth. “Initially the test helicopter was manually driven,” Bailey says, “but human reaction time is inadequate for such a thin environment. That’s when we started looking toward an autonomous vehicle, a helicopter driven by a computer and commands.”
Two engineering fashions efficiently endured in depth aerodynamic and environmental testing, serving to the Ingenuity staff decide it might, certainly, assemble an autonomous system that would not solely navigate the tenuous Martian air but additionally survive on the planet’s chilly, radiation-bathed floor. “From there, we built the flight model, which also underwent extensive testing,” Bailey says. “And that helped bring us to where we are now.”
The Wright Stuff
Before Ingenuity left for Mars, JPL officers contacted Carillon Historical Park in Dayton, house of the Wright Brothers National Museum, to acquire an unique Wright Flyer material swatch. “Back in the 1940s, Orville Wright had a number of these swatches made,” says Steve Lucht, curator of Carillon Historical Park.
But this isn’t the first time the Wright Flyer has hitched a journey into area. In July 1969 the late Neil Armstrong carried a bit of the aircraft to the moon throughout the Apollo 11 mission. And in 1998 the late John Glenn, then a U.S. senator and former NASA astronaut, flew on the area shuttle Discovery with a Wright Flyer material swatch in tow. Discovery additionally despatched one other swatch aloft in 2000 for a weeklong keep on the International Space Station as half of the STS-92 mission.
“This is another one of those times where I wish I could speak with my great-granduncles,” says Amanda Wright Lane, the Wright brothers’ great-grandniece. “Wouldn’t they be stunned, so pleased. It’s remarkable to think of where we’ve come in 118 years—to Mars, literally, to Mars.”
Orville Wright died on January 30, 1948, nearly a decade earlier than the daybreak of the area age, though he lived to see the late pilot Chuck Yeager break the sound barrier. “We’re opening up a whole new dimension,” Bailey says. “Anyone who follows will be benefited. Sometimes you do things just to prove you can do them. We’re showing we can do this. I think that’s enough to propel us further.”