Life on Mars…
One small flight but one giant leap for mankind
The inspiring series of human firsts of the Mars Exploration Program including the first powered flight by the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter surely come a close second to actual LIFE as we know it.
Since the touchdown of the Mars Perseverance Rover on the Red Planet was live-streamed back to Earth on February 18, 2021, the unfolding, real-life sci-fi events and experiments of the project have been fascinating to behold. This unprecedented project is as significant as the first space flights and moon landings of the last century. And with a continuous stream of images, video and data gathered from robotic orbiters, landers and mobile laboratories, the project is pushing the boundaries of human endeavour with every new achievement.
117 years after the Wright brothers succeeded in made the first flight on Earth, on April 19, 2021, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter became the first aircraft in history to make a powered and controlled flight on another planet. The 49-centimeter high, solar-powered helicopter, equipped with two 1.2m wide rotors took off, climbed to an altitude of 10 feet (3 meters) and hovered just above the Martian surface for 30 seconds.
As well as being a historic moment, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter flight is significant in overcoming innumerable technical challenges. Flying an aircraft on Mars is far more complex than on Earth, given the atmospheric particularities of the Red Planet’s surface and the distances involved.
Although gravity on Mars is about one-third that of Earth’s, the helicopter must fly in the thin Martian atmosphere which is about 1% of the density of the Earth’s atmosphere. The rotors were designed to give much more lift and to spin faster, allowing the craft to leave the surface.
And from 173 million miles away, piloting the helicopter with real-time joystick controls was not an option. The helicopter’s flight was controlled by AI algorithms and piloted by onboard guidance, navigation, and control systems.
The Mars Helicopter’s second flight on April 22, 2021 tested the aircraft to its maximum altitude, for a longer duration – just under a minute, and adding some sideways movement.
Håvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot at JPL the company which manages this technology project for NASA commented “…there are many unknowns regarding how to fly a helicopter on Mars. That’s why we’re here – to make these unknowns known.”
Take a look at the flight
Out of this world Product Design
As product designers, we are inspired by the Mars Exploration Program on many levels. As Homo sapiens, our unique ability to explore, to understand, to learn and materialise ideas has changed the everyday lives of our species in only a few hundred thousand years.
Throughout history, we have evolved into technicians, explorers, philosophers and inventors. We have constantly expanded the limits of our knowledge, information and know-how through discovery, by asking questions and by solving problems. Today, albeit in less profound ways than the Mars program, every new product design pushes the boundaries of utility, technicity, aesthetics and materials in order to improve lives.
It is difficult not to be impressed at the thought of these man-made robots at work on the surface of Mars right now. The six-wheeled robot’s first drive on the Martian surface was a notable event. And since the first high definition, 360° panoramic views of the Jezero Crater landing site on 22 February, 2021, the Perseverance and Curiosity Mars rovers have been taking samples, pictures, videos, and capturing sound. You can even check the Martian weather conditions right in (almost) real-time on the NASA official Mars Exploration Program website here.
A breath of fresh air for space exploration
In the latest update of 21 April, 2021 the MOXIE instrument successfully converted CO2 into oxygen. From powering rockets to providing breathable air for astronauts, this is yet another significant step of ingenuity to applaud. The coming stages of the Mars Exploration Program open the possibilities of future discovery even further. Learning more about the history and nature of Mars from samples from the planet’s surface, the project paves the way for new expeditions. It is just a matter of time as to when the first human will walk on the surface of another planet.
On Earth, the spectacular images and videos that document the impossible becoming achievable will be firing the imagination of a new generation of Engineers, Technicians and Designers. Addressing gender inequalities and inspiring more girls to take up engineering careers, NASA have created an accompanying webinar series “Taking Flight – How Girls can grow up to be engineers”
The Mars Exploration Project is proving on multiple levels that sky is no longer the limit when it comes to design ingenuity, determination, teamwork and an inspiring “let’s do it” attitude.
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