As you probably know by now, the Mars Rover known as Perseverance landed on the Red Planet with a passenger, a small helicopter called Ingenuity that NASA and Jet Propulsion Labs hopes will do the first hover from another planet. It’s kind of a big deal, flying in another world, not only because it’s never been done before—atmospheric flight is what counts, not rocket-powered stuff, because flight is all about the wind beneath the wings, not the thrust out the pipe.
But that might not happen for a while. NASA hasn’t gone into much detail about why it’s going to be awhile before Ingenuity takes to the Martian skies, and they’ve been just about as vague on the when part. They’ve mentioned an April date, but the truth seems to be that they’re not committing to any date. Why not? Again, they’re not super clear on that. One supposes that they want to make sure everything is set for a successful first hover and whirl and not some fourth rock-from-the-sun version of what our childhood living room flying fiascos looked like. Which makes sense. Nobody wants to remember the Wright’s first attempt at flight on that special day. It wasn’t pretty. And with the Weather Channel not fully ready for the 10-Day Martian forecast, Ingenuity’s handlers want to make sure that no one gets surprised by a pop-up dust storm.
Now, the Wright Brothers get a lot of credit for being the first to fly, though to be fair to prior pioneers, their jaunt on December 17, 1903, was in reality the first flight of a “a heavier than air, powered, human controlled aircraft.” Other kinds of flying, some of them very impressive, had been accomplished before, as long as 150 years (or more) before Kitty Hawk.
It won’t be a true Wright Brothers’ moment, because Ingenuity, a battery-powered, AI- controlled helicopter, won’t have any carbon-based life forms aboard, that is unless a curious Martian creature hops aboard and takes over the stick-and-rudder (cyclic and anti-torque?) work. While that would be the coolest thing ever, the reality of it is, Ingenuity won’t even be remotely controlled, as it takes between five and 20 minutes before a control command sent from Earth would get to its intended target.
So, Ingenuity will rely on artificial intelligence to do its thing, and that’s going to be a lot harder than you might think, because the Martian atmosphere is just about one percent as dense as our home planet’s, so aerodynamically, things are a lot more sensitive. Think of how well planes fly at 80,000 feet. So, Ingenuity has been outfitted with blades that are very wide at the root and that spin at far greater rpm’s than those on Earth-bound helicopters. NASA is confident it will work.
Back to the question of when. NASA has suggested on a few occasions the possibility of an April date with destiny. We have a particular day in mind: April 16th. It’s Wilbur Wright’s birthday. Wilbur didn’t live long enough to see what heights aviation would reach. He died in 1912 of typhoid fever. So, it would be a nice gesture.
What grand plans does NASA have for Ingenuity once it proves its thin-air-worthiness? None, really. The whole idea of Ingenuity is to see it fly. It does have a camera, so if all goes well, we’ll get to see the first in-flight shots of the Red Planet. But apparently NASA isn’t fixated on those images.
The whole idea is the flying part. From our perspective, that’s the coolest thing about the entire mission. That is, unless Perseverance does indeed find evidence of Martian life. That would be a tough act for Ingenuity to compete with.