26 March 2021

The mind in flight, from 1903 to 2021

It's been just over 117 years since the Wright brothers achieved the first powered flight in December of 1903.  Compared with the full sweep of human history, that's not a long time, but the technology of flight has come far.  Within decades of the Wrights' achievement, humanity progressed to the routine use of aircraft in war, routine commercial aviation, the first human in space (1961), and the first humans on the Moon (1969).  Since then, we've carried out extensive exploration of the solar system, with each planet and several major moons receiving at least one flyby, culminating in the New Horizons probe's visit to Pluto in 2015.

The current Perseverance rover mission on Mars represents yet another step forward.  It carries a helicopter, named Ingenuity, specially designed for flight on Mars.  When it first takes to the air (probably in early April), it will echo the Wright brothers by achieving the first powered flight by an aircraft on another planet, barely a century after we first managed it on this one.  I think the Wrights would have been impressed at how we've carried their work forward.

Designing a helicopter for Mars was a major challenge.  Mars's gravity is only one-third as strong as Earth's, but the atmosphere is only one hundredth as dense, offering little purchase for rotors.  Since low gravity cannot be simulated on Earth on a large scale, it was impossible to test-fly the machine under true Mars-like conditions.  Ingenuity weighs only four pounds and has a rotor span of four feet, so it's comparable in size to a large drone.  Unlike a drone, however, it can't be operated by remote control in real time, because radio signals take several minutes to travel from Earth to Mars (the exact amount of time depends on the positions of the two planets along their orbits).  Ingenuity has its own onboard computers and navigation sensors, enabling it to autonomously carry out instructions transmitted from Earth in advance.

This video is animation depicting what the first test flight will look like -- when the real thing happens, Perseverance's cameras will record the event for us.  Ingenuity's mission is not scientific research as such, but rather putting the technology to the test, gaining knowledge of what flying on Mars is actually like, to help in the design of future aircraft which will explore parts of the planet which rovers cannot reach.

And someone at NASA has a sense of history.  Ingenuity carries within itself a tiny piece of fabric from the Wright brothers' original 1903 airplane, in tribute to those who helped launch this fantastic flight of the mind which has now come so far.


Blogger Debra She Who Seeks said...

Very cool!

26 March, 2021 09:49  
Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

This is absolutely fascinating.
I can't believe there are people who doubt science but use technology every day. Well, there's also people who think that all this is taking place in some soundstage somewhere in the Mohave or something like that, no?


26 March, 2021 10:07  
Anonymous Ole Phat Stu said...

Actually Gustav Weisskopf/Whitehead flew two years before the Wright brothers.
So what does NASA have against immigrants?

26 March, 2021 11:09  
Blogger CAS said...

When you put air travel in perspective, from the Wright Brothers until today, it really is mind-boggling. The older I get, the shorter 100 years seems. It's not all that long. Yet, there have been so many tiny innovations over that time, made by tens of thousands of people, that we're now designing helicopters for Mars' atmosphere and sending pictures back to earth from outside of our solar system. It's impossible to fully imagine the trajectory that got us from Kitty Hawk until today, but it's fun to try.

Thanks for another post that made me stop and think and not just fly past the headline.

26 March, 2021 21:32  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Debra: Indeed!

Sixpence: The people who think the Moon landing was faked probably think this was faked as well. Who cares.

27 March, 2021 00:46  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Stu: That's a fringe claim dismissed by most real historians.

27 March, 2021 00:46  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Carol: My grandmother was born before the flight of the Wright brothers, and she lived to see men walk on the Moon. The really interesting part, to me, is where we'll be in another hundred years.

27 March, 2021 00:48  
Blogger CAS said...

That's another great way to put things into perspective. Three of my grandparents were born before that first flight. The oldest, my grandfather, was ten years old at the time--a perfect age to take a keen interest in such an achievement. And to think that we had stepped on the moon before I had turned 10 years old. Incredible!

27 March, 2021 08:25  
Anonymous Racer X said...

Impressive...however on the other hand I can't really say that commercial aviation has made such great strides in the last 60 years...

27 March, 2021 11:22  
Blogger Tundra Bunny said...

NOVA recently featured a segment on the development of the helicopter-drone to be used on the Mars landing that was fascinating. And female engineers, mathematicians, programmers, etc are finally in the vanguard of these technological advancements, including mission control!

27 March, 2021 11:26  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Carol: It's amazing how much change can now happen in a single normal lifetime.

Racer: That's a capitalism problem more than a technology problem.

Bunny: I've noticed that -- more and more women in the sciences generally, including the space program.

28 March, 2021 04:39  

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