On April 19, 2021, a toaster oven-sized helicopter called Ingenuity spun its rotors and soared 10 feet above the surface of Mars, become the first craft To perform a powered flight on an extraterrestrial world. It won’t be the last.
Three more extraterrestrial publications are already in development at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other space agencies, and several unmanned helicopters, hoppers, and floating machines are on the drawing boards. These aerial robots could scan the clouds of Venus, search for life on Saturn’s moon Titan and scout for resources for Mars astronauts who may arrive in the late 2000s.
These missions face formidable technological hurdles, says Theodore Zanetos, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Flying on other worlds requires extremely lightweight materials, independent navigation, and adaptation to extreme temperatures and different atmospheres. “With large flying vehicles, things get more complicated,” says Mr. Zanetos. “How do you get it there? How do you make it reliable?”
But if he and his fellow rocket scientists pull it off, we’ll soon be touring the solar system like never before.
“There are a lot of things you can do with air mobility that you can’t do with a lander or a rover,” says Jeff Landis, a physicist at NASA’s John Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. “If you want to do global exploration, from the pole to the equator, you need something that can fly.”
NASA’s ingenuity has shattered expectations about what a helicopter can achieve on other planets. Billed as a low-budget tech demo and scheduled to make just five flights, this small rover has so far flown into the Martian skies dozens of times. Ingenuity has demonstrated that miniature components and large anti-rotational rotating blades make controlled flight possible in an atmosphere about 100 times thinner than Earth’s. Along the way, I submitted Unprecedented aerial views from the surface of the Red Planet and supported the nearby NASA Perseverance rover.
The breakthrough ingenuity prompted NASA to abandon plans to send an ESA spacecraft to Mars to transport cached soil samples by Perseverance so that they could be returned to Earth for analysis. Now the agency says that in 2028 it will launch a pair of new Ingenuity-style prisms, each enhanced with four wheels and a grab arm for assistance. Collect samples.
Work with colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as well as NASA’s Ames Research Center and the company
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Mr. Zanetos also conceptualized a larger helicopter with six rotors instead of the two he created. The Mars Science Helicopter, as the rover is known, will be able to carry up to 10 pounds of instruments.
Then there is dragonfly, a nuclear-powered helicopter under development at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. In 2027, NASA plans to launch Dragonfly toward Titan, where the atmosphere is four times denser and gravity seven times weaker than Earth’s. Under these conditions, a modest push from Dragonfly’s eight rotors should be enough to send a half-ton science lab into the sky.
“Titan just called for air travel,” says Elizabeth “Zippy” the APL turtle, APL planetary scientist and principal investigator for the Dragonfly mission.
Plans call for Dragonfly to take to the air once a month for about three years, traveling up to 10 miles per flight, to explore a landscape dotted with liquid methane lakes, icy rocks and sand dunes made of tar grains. Each time it lands in a new location, the octocopter will use its suite of instruments to assess the local environment, looking for carbon compounds of the kind that scientists think might be harbingers of life. If a site seemed particularly interesting, Dragonfly would collect samples from the surface using a pair of drills.
“We want to understand the chemical steps that occur on Titan, those that may be like the early chemical steps that occurred here on Earth” before the first organisms appeared, says Dr. Turtle.
Moons and other small bodies in the solar system lack any significant atmosphere, which means flying a winged vehicle is impossible there. Aeronautical engineers relentlessly create flying machines designed for those worlds, too.
While a graduate student at MIT in 2021, Oliver Gea Richards created a concept for a glider that electrically charges the Earth and repels it against it, like two magnets pushing against each other. Now, an aeronautical engineer at the University of Michigan, Dr. Gia Richards continues to test the components of a flying glider. imagine a Two-pound explorer, saucer-shaped It can fly smoothly over rough terrain in windless places.
NASA’s Dr. Landis has envisioned zero-atmosphere fliers that pack even more punch, powered by bursts of rocket engine power. Capable of covering dozens of miles at a time, these “hoppers” might scavenge for local resources so they don’t need to carry propellants from Earth. On Pluto, for example, “we can collect nitrogen ice, heat it up, and use it to fuel our rocket,” says Dr. Landis.
Venus presents the opposite challenge for flying machines: an extremely dense atmosphere crushes the surface with pressure equivalent to 3,000 feet underwater on Earth. Earth’s temperatures on Venus hover around 900 degrees Fahrenheit. No helicopter, glider or hopper will last long there.
The solution proposed by Paul Byrne, a planetary scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, is to build an altitude-adjustable balloon probe and place it 35 miles above the surface of Venus, where temperatures and pressures are surprisingly Earth-like. The so-called erobot will have a helium-filled high-pressure chamber to maintain buoyancy surrounded by a low-pressure chamber that expands or contracts to change the craft’s altitude, avoiding storms and avoiding heat as needed.
Dr. Byrne is collaborating with a team from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Near Space Corp. in Tillamook, Oregon, to develop a one-third-size prototype of the aircraft. In July, he flew successfully Over the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. Dr. Byrne is now working on a proposal for a full-size version, which would resemble an enormous silver peanut, about 45 feet wide and 60 feet long.
Engineers propose that a fly could fly for months above the clouds of Venus, solving one of the solar system’s greatest mysteries: Why did Venus turn hell while Earth became fertile, even though the planets are so similar in size and composition? Could our planet await the same fate? “If it were to fly, we would rewrite the textbooks – for Venus, Earth and rocky planets in general,” says Dr. Byrne.
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What discoveries can you expect from expanded flight on other worlds in the coming years? Join the conversation below.
MIT astronomer Sarah Seager wonders if ancient life on Venus took refuge in clouds, and if it still exists today. I helped plan a mission to find out. It will send a drone equipped with missiles to Venus to collect them cloud samples and return it to Earth for analysis.
Then again, maybe scientists will go there instead. Dr. Landis says that giant airships could enable manned missions to Venus. Looking into the future, he can imagine air cities on the planet, where people live inside oxygen-rich habitats that float above the thick atmosphere.
“You can do a settlement on Venus probably more easily than almost anywhere else in the solar system,” he says.
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