Yesterday morning, on an expanse of red, barren soil, a small metallic creature with an invisible, intangible brain spun its blades for the very first time: NASA celebrated its first powered, controlled flight of an autonomous device on another planet: Mars.
The Ingenuity helicopter, a separate, modular component of the Perseverance Rover, passed its first test-flight with hovering colors, rising a valiant and elegant 9’8ft into the Martian air, hovered, and came back down this fine morning on earth. That’s right, folks: this fine morning on earth.
“We can now say that human beings have flown a rotocraft on another planet.”
MiMi Aung, Ingenuity Project Manager at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The aircraft is the new pioneer in a series of advances in, not just space, but planetary exploration as a way of scouting potential new homes in our plan for Universal Dominance.
(I’m not actually that cynical…but it could happen, unless someone out there is smart enough to ram a great, gooey, intergalactic piece of humble pie in our collective face; but I digress.)
Initially, the bar was set at tentatively locking into Mars’ orbit; then to land the Perseverance unit on its surface. Now, NASA has conquered its atmosphere, says a beaming Manish Patel, head of Space Instrumentation at the Open University, adding, in the manner of Neil Armstrong 51 years ago: “This is one small flight for Ingenuity, but one giant leap for Mars exploration.”
Built to fly in the lower gravity scenario of the Red Planet, it is also designed to conquer its atmosphere, which is thinner that Earth’s, at roughly 1%. To have an idea, about as thin as it would be 9.94 miles above sea level.
Mission controllers are hoping to run up to five test flights within a 30 Martian day period (which is 31 Earth days.)
Intended as complement to the Perseverance Rover, and ideal for accessing remote places outside the Rover’s range, such as caves, mountains, and; craters, what a complement it appears to be.
Granted, it was only a 40 second test flight, critics might argue, and only a puny 9’8ft; but there is no doubt that, 117 years after the Wright brothers made their maiden voyage and spawned a whole series of rather comical, if equally brave yet slightly less elegant spinoffs (see below), it is no overstatement to say that Ingenuity’s maiden voyage yesterday was something akin to our century’s Wright brother moment.
In fact, the airfield where Ingenuity made its maiden voyage was named Wright Brothers Field.
Let’s just pause to think about this for a moment.
Ingenuity is an autonomous aircraft; we cannot control it remotely, for at a cool stretch of 173 million miles away, it is simply too far. The bloody thing has a brain all of its own, which exists strictly as code. I don’t know about you, but all of this makes my head spin.
We were monkeys in trees, people!
It has always been my pet theory for years that humans have been jumping from planet to planet, devastating many before earth, and that Mars was actually our previous home, which we successfully destroyed. Our ancestors, however, programmed memory erasure on the sentient beings they dropped on earth, so nobody would repeat the catastrophe. But guess what. We are. And one day, when we eventually get there, we might well find recognizable traces of…our own ancient civilization. Imagine that!
© Pedro B. Gorman.