TNB Night Owl – NASA Ingenuity

In this illustration, NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter stands on the Red Planet's surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Any list of the milestones in human history must include mankind’s first heavier-than-air powered flight by the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903. Landing men on the moon on July 21, 1969, is another prime example of a human milestone achievement.

Right now, a tiny robotic helicopter is sitting on the surface of our neighboring planet, Mars, waiting for the greenlight from mission control to attempt the first heavier-than-(martian)-air powered flight on another planet. Admittedly, it won’t be as monumental an achievement as when Wilbur and Orville first slipped the bonds of Earth, or as stop-the-world breathtaking as when Armstrong and Aldrin planted boot prints in lunar regolith. But it will be a significant milestone. Not only will it echo those two apex benchmarks, it also will demonstrate that we can repeat our earthly accomplishments anywhere. The universe is wide open to us to explore.

In tribute to the Wright brothers first flight, a postage stamp-size piece of fabric from the first Wright Flyer aircraft was provided by the Smithsonian Museum and is carried within NASA’s little Mars helicopter. By the way, when TNB Night Owl first wrote about the Mars-bound micro-chopper, NASA’s official name for this part of the mission was simply “NASA Mars Helicopter“. After Perseverance Mars rover was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, on July 30, 2020, with the ‘copter firmly attached to its belly, officials at the space agency must have realized the popularity and historical significance of their experiment with the helicopter. They turned to the finalists list of the Perseverance naming contest and selected Ingenuity as the new official name for the Mars helicopter.

Perseverance and Ingenuity touched down on Mars on February 18, 2021. Ingenuity was scheduled to make its first flight this past Sunday, April 11, an event that many aviation and aerospace fans (including myself) have been waiting for on pins and needles. However, on Friday, April 9, a pre-flight check test failed to complete properly, and NASA postponed first flight until Wednesday, April 14 (today). Unfortunately, we’re going to have to sit on our hands a little while longer. On Monday, April 12, NASA announced that a software fix for the problem was in the works, but no completion date was available. Perhaps next week, they said, they might be able to announce a new first-flight date.

Every spacecraft sent aloft is a complex, usually one-of-a-kind, design mix of hardware and software. As such, the design, development, building and testing of each vehicle takes years. Ingenuity, a relatively simple craft compared to most probes sent to another planet, is no exception. The helicopter had to be programmed to carry out every flight on its own, without assistance from mission control, due to the more than 15 minute transmission time lag involved between Earth and Mars. So the designers selected one of the most cutting-edge microprocessors available at the time to be Ingenuity’s ‘brain’: the Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor. This is the same chip that debuted in high-end cellphones circa 2014-2015, which is when designers were starting to put Ingenuity together on the drawing board.

Just think, your current cellphone (if newer) probably has a more powerful ‘brain’ than the helicopter on Mars about to make history.

Question Of The Night: What monumental events have you waited for on pins and needles (that is, with great anticipation?

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About Richard Doud 236 Articles
Learning is a life-long endeavor. Never stop learning. No one is right all the time. No one is wrong all the time. No exceptions to these rules.