With NASA’s historic solar-powered helicopter flight over the barren slopes of Mars’ Jezero Crater, Leonardo da Vinci and Igor Sikorsky also deserve credit along with the Wright brothers for enabling this astounding bit of off-world powered, controlled flight. Da Vinci made one of the earliest drawings of a rotor-driven aircraft and Sikorsky built the U.S.’ first commercially viable helicopter.
Even though Orville and Wilbur Wright get credit for making the first powered, controlled aircraft flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, the vertical flight of helicopters is markedly different. Thus, the first test flight of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter is all the more astounding in no small part because Mars’ atmosphere is only one percent that of Earth.
“While these two iconic moments in aviation history may be separated by time and 173 million miles of space, they now will forever be linked,” NASA Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen said in a statement. “As an homage to the two innovative bicycle makers from Dayton, this first of many airfields on other worlds will now be known as Wright Brothers Field, in recognition of the ingenuity and innovation that continue to propel exploration.”
The 4-pound Ingenuity rotorcraft reached an altitude of 10 feet and maintained a stable hover for 30 seconds, says NASA, before touching back down on the Martian surface. There are relatively few air molecules with which Ingenuity’s two 4-foot-wide rotor blades can interact to achieve flight, says the space agency.
Even so, Renaissance icon Leonardo da Vinci clearly deserves credit for his rudimentary helicopter designs which I first encountered in France’s Loire Valley during a visit to the Château du Clos Lucé in Amboise. Towards the end of da Vinci’s life, he left Rome for a journey through France. And after meeting the French king Francis I was invited to live in the king’s Amboise chateau where upon da Vinci’s death in 1519, the Renaissance man left many of his drawings, including ones of his helicopter designs.
“A pure helicopter can be defined as any flying machine using a rotor with blades that spin about a shaft to provide lift, propulsion, and control forces that enable the aircraft to hover relative to the ground without forward flight speed to generate these forces,” J. G. Leishman explains in his 2000 book “Principles of Helicopter Aerodynamics.” But to be practical, the machine must also be able to fly forward, climb, cruise at speed, and then descend and come back into a hover for landing, notes Leishman. That’s a feat that’s only achieved in nature by the hummingbird or dragonfly, the author writes.
As for da Vinci’s drawings?
Da Vinci’s sketch of the “aerial-screw” or “air gyroscope” device is dated to 1483 and was an obvious elaboration of an Archimedes’ water-screw, writes Leishman. He notes that da Vinci’s proposed device comprised a helical surface formed out of iron wire, with linen surfaces made “airtight with starch.” But da Vinci did not actually build his machine, except perhaps for some small models, Leishman notes. Even so, he writes that da Vinci’s idea was clearly far ahead of its time.
But it took another four centuries before Igor Sigorsky made the helicopter idea into something practical and commercially viable.
While still living in czarist Russia, Sikorsky experimented with primitive vertical lift aircraft as early as 1907, writes Leishman. Sikorsky honed his designs after emigrating to the U.S. And by 1943, he had developed the R-5, a two-seater helicopter that saw wide use in the Pacific during World War II.
Yet as anyone who’s ever ridden in a conventional rotor-driven helicopter can attest, there’s a world of difference between a fixed wing aircraft and a helicopter. That’s a lesson I learned some time ago while covering the opening of an aircraft plant in South Korea. To avoid a long return bus ride, I happily accepted an offer to return to central Seoul via helicopter instead. Let’s just say that the flight was so buffeted by heavy winds high over the Korean hillsides that I longed for a fixed-wing aircraft. Given Mars’ thin atmosphere, that’s not a problem that helicopters on Mars would likely ever experience, however.
Will humans ever fly in rotor-driven craft on Mars?
In the long term, it’s more likely humans will move about using some sort of ground-based rocket propulsion which would enable short hops of a few kilometers or more around the surface. However, the advent of small robotic helicopters on the red planet may be a boon for Mars science.
“The use of helicopters promises to bridge a gap between orbiters providing large-area imagery at low resolution, and rovers that provide detailed imagery limited by line-of-sight from the current rover location,” says NASA. Paired with a rover, a helicopter can act as a forward reconnaissance platform, identifying science targets or mapping the terrain ahead of a rover, NASA notes.
As for drones?
The ability to harness a high-quality drones with enough maneuverability to check out Mars in the same manner that off-the-shelf, commercially-available, Earth-based drones can do so here would revolutionize robotic exploration of Mars or any off-world body.
What’s next for NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter?
Its second experimental test flight is scheduled for no earlier than April 22, says NASA. And if the helicopter survives the second flight test, the Ingenuity team says it will consider how best to expand the flight profile.