Mars helicopter carries Wright stuff on first flight

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter, as viewed by the Perseverance rover’s rear hazard camera on 4 April 2021. Image: NASA

A small piece of the first heavier than atmosphere aircraft to make a powered controlled flight on Earth will be on board the first aircraft to make a powered controlled flight on Mars. When the Ingenuity helicopter takes off on the red planet today, it will carry a swatch of cotton muslin wing cloth from the Wright brothers’ Flyer I.

Ingenuity is scheduled to take-off today at 5:30pm AEST for a 30-second hovering flight to an altitude of about 3 metres. NASA says Ingenuity is a technology demonstration – ‘a project that seeks to test a new capability for the first time, with limited scope’. The electrically-powered, unmanned coaxial rotor helicopter was carried to Mars on the six-wheeled Perseverance rover.

Flight on Mars is a considerable technical challenge, with issues including extremes of temperature (from +20 to -90 degrees C), an atmosphere 99 per cent less dense than Earth’s and distance from Earth that delays radio signals by between 4 and 24 minutes (depending on orbital position).

In response, the Ingenuity helicopter has a high degree of autonomy, making its own flight control decisions rather than waiting for commands from mission control. The rotors of the 1.8 kg craft spin at 2400 rpm and artificial intelligence controls the heating systems for batteries and avionics. Offsetting the thin atmosphere is Martian gravity, which is 0.375 the strength of gravity on Earth. NASA says the atmospheric/gravity combination is the equivalent of flying at 100,000 feet on Earth.

NASA plans for up to 5 test flights within a 30-Martian-day (31-Earth-day) period.

The fabric swatch is one of several prepared by Orville Wright before his death in 1948. Swatches from Flyer I have been carried to the moon on the Apollo 11 mission, and into orbit by pioneering astronaut John Glenn, when later in life he flew on the space shuttle Discovery. Another swatch was carried on the International Space Station.