Quirks & Quarks·Analysis

A new era of flight on other worlds

Bob McDonald's blog: Powered flight on Mars could be the first step to atmospheric flight on other planets or moons

Bob McDonald's blog: NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter is a first attempt at powered flight on another planet

This image shows Ingenuity during a wiggle test of its blades before the actual spin-up to ensure they were working properly on April 13, 2021. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU)

The first flight of a helicopter on Mars will mark the beginning of a new milestone in aviation history. To that end, it carries a piece of fabric from the first powered aircraft on Earth, the Wright Flyer.

NASA's Ingenuity helicopter is the first aircraft using power designed to fly on another planet. While there have been many landers on Mars, none have been able to lift off the ground and survey the landscape from the air. If successful, powered flight would open a whole new realm of exploration on Mars.

To honour that milestone, a small patch of cloth taken from the original Wright flyer that made the first powered flight on Earth in 1903, is attached to Ingenuity to symbolically pass the torch to the first powered flight on another planet. 

Orville and Wilbur Wright are generally credited with inventing, building and flying the world's first successful motor-operated airplane (NASA/Library of Congress)

But "powered" is the key word here, because there have been flights on another world carried out by balloon back in 1985.

First non-powered flights

In an ambitious, international project called Vega, the Soviet Union released two descent modules down to the hellishly hot surface of Venus. On the way down, the probes released balloons that floated in the upper atmosphere at an altitude of about 50 kilometres for about two days, studying atmospheric composition, temperatures and winds. 

It is fitting that the first flight on another planet was by balloon because that's how Étienne Montgolfier first ascended into the sky on our planet, in a hot air balloon in 1783, 120 years before the Wright brothers.

Balloon flight has been proposed for Mars by the European Space Agency, but with advances in drone technology, the helicopter got there first.

Proof of concept

Ingenuity is only a technology demonstrator, which means its prime mission is to prove that it can actually fly in the thin Martian atmosphere, which is only one per cent as dense as Earth. It has to hover and move in a controlled manner and most importantly, land softly. The vehicle will only fly a few metres off the ground in short hops lasting no more than 90 seconds.

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover took a selfie with the Ingenuity helicopter on April 6, 2021. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Piloting an aircraft on Mars is not easy because the distance between the two planets is so great there is a time delay of up to 20 minutes each way while the radio signal crosses interplanetary space. So all the flight commands have to be programmed into the vehicle's computer ahead of time before it heads off on its own. 

Anyone who has flown a radio controlled aircraft will tell you, just one wrong move on the joystick can have catastrophic results. So the flying commands have to be exactly right. That's why the scientists are being very cautious with the first flights of Ingenuity.

A bird's eye view

But oh the places we could go.

This image from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) shows blocks of layered terrain within the Olympus Mons aureole. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

While Mars is one of the smaller planets in the solar system, only about half the size of Earth, it has the most extreme geography. An extinct volcano, Olympus Mons, is more than twice as high as Mt. Everest.

Imagine flying through a steep-walled canyon, Valles Marineris, that runs for thousands of kilometres with cliffs towering many kilometres above the valley floor. 

This animation is a computer-generated flythrough of the grandest canyon in the solar system, Valles Marineris. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio)

Then there are the frozen ice caps at the north and south poles.

The next flight frontier

Beyond Mars, the next world to be explored with a helicopter is not a planet at all. Titan, a moon of Saturn, has a thick nitrogen atmosphere, which makes flying much easier.

A mission called Dragonfly is due to launch in 2026 and arrive on Titan in 2034. The eight bladed drone helicopter will be much larger and fly above Titan's bizarre liquid methane lakes and organic-rich soils that might just contain the precursors of life. 

Taking advantage of Titan’s dense atmosphere and low gravity, Dragonfly will explore dozens of locations across the icy world, sampling and measuring the compositions of Titan's organic surface materials to characterize the habitability of Titan’s environment and investigate the progression of prebiotic chemistry. (NASA / JHU-APL)

Balloons could also make a comeback in the distant future as they could be the best way to explore the swirling clouds of the giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, which are made almost entirely out of gas. 

Flight has enabled humans to reach every part of planet Earth. Now we could be on the cusp of future aerial adventures around other planets as well.


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.