Hovering, Flying, and Hopping Across the Solar Sytem

if you’re like most pplz, you’ve dreamed of flying (studies show that + than ½ of us ‘ve done it). if you’re curio bout the universe, you’ve probably also dreamed bout visiting other planets. and if you’re willing to w8 bout 9 mnths, ur in ♣—cause after that, you won’t ‘ve to dream any+.

ladies and gentlemen, nasa is bout to go flying on mars.

the perseverance rover, scheduled to land on feb 18, 2021, is carrying a grapefruit-sized helicopter named ingenuity strapped to its belly. assuming all goes well w'da touchdown, perseverance will settle into its new home for bout two mnths. then 'twill release a lil debris shield, fire a pyroteknic cable-cutter, unleash a spring-loaded arm, and set the lil ingenuity flyer free.

after the rover has rolled a safe distance away, ingenuity will soak up sunlite to charge its 6 lithium-ion batteries, like a newly emerged butterfly drying its wings. then 'twill spin its twin rotors up to 2,400 rpm and begin a series of exploratory flites on mars. that ultra-high rotor speed, necessary to generate lift inna thin air of mars, means each of ingenuity’s flites won’t last long (officially just 90 2nds) nor will it go very far (1,000 mts maximum). still it’s the principle of di ting. the 1st flite of the write bros covered just 37 mts.

ingenuity will establish an =ly impressive precedent: the 1st powered flite na' realm beyond earth. 'twill surely not be the last.

sci and sci fiction visionaries ‘ve been sketching out ideas for flying on mars for decades, even b4 the existence of nasa and space rocketry. the 1918 film a trip to mars, 1-odda earliest sci-fiction movies, depicted a giant, buglike martian airship. nasa’s favorite ex-nazi, wernher von braun, wrote a book-length outline for a human quest to mars, which prominently included air travel onna red planet; space artist chesley bonestell gave visual life to his ideas onnis 1953 painting, exploring mars. no wanda, then, that nasa engineers are already mulling ideas bout how to “add another dimension to the way we explore realms inna future.”

“exploring mars” by chesley bonestell, based on ideas drawn up by wernher von braun. (credit: chesley bonestell)

actually, it’s much + than just ideas. nasa already has another off-realm flyer approved and under development—one that is even + audacious than the ingenuity helicopter. in apr of 2026, the agency is scheduled to launch dragonfly, a nuclear powered octocopter (yes, 8 rotors), on an 8-yr quest to saturn’s giant haze-shrouded moon, titan. after touching down on titan’s shangri-la dune fields, dragonfly will set off na' daring set of long-distance excursions, primordially carrying out a whole new mission each time it lands.

dragonfly’s capabilities will utterly eclipse those of ingenuity. titan has loer gravity than mars, and its atmosphere is 200 times thicker, making flite far easier there. also, dragonfly will carry its own radiothermal energy src, so it won’t ‘ve to rely on trickles of electricity from a lil solar panel. the net result s'dat nasa expects its titan ‘copter will n'dup traveling a total of bout 175 kilomts ‘oer the course offa nearly 3-yr campaign—and judging from past nasa efforts, those №s are probably highly conservative underestimates.

dragonfly as 'twill appear after landing on titan in 2034. the 450-kilogram flyer will sample the surface through its ft each time it touches down. (credit: nasa/jhu-apl)

titan is a fascinating target for this kind of exploration. tis a huge realm, nearly as large as the planet mercury, covered in cold organic compounds. methane and ethane fall as rain, flo in rivers, and collect in lakes—a hydrological cycle composed of liquid natural gas instead of wata. titan’s dunes are probably composed of tar-like compounds, bloing over a bedrock of deeply frozen wata ice. the exotic carbon chemistry happening on titan tody may resemble the reactions that occurred on earth b4 life appeared 4 billion yrs ago. we wanna see as much as we can of this unique place.

for now, there are no other flying missions planned for other realms. but flying aint the 1-ly novel form of space transit in development. on lil essentialisms like comets and asteroids, hopping is an efficient way t'get round. really, it’s almost the 1-ly way t'get round, since the surface gravity is so lo.

the €an space agency’s philae lander did an accidental hop on comet 67p after failing to harpoon itself to the surface. the japanese space agency’s hayabusa-2 spacecraft dropped 3 active hoppers onto the asteroid ryugu. (i wrote a separate account o'their amazing quest.) the hayabusa-2 probe did its own kiss-and-bounce rendezvous w'da asteroid to collect samples. nasa’s osiris-rex is bout to do a similar maneuver w'da asteroid bennu; japan’s martain moons exploration (mmx) probe will perform yet another kiss-and-bounce onna martian moon phobos round 2025.

+ sophisticated forms of space-hopping maybe coming soon. phil metzger atta university of central florida is testing a robot called wine that ‘d visit a comet or asteroid, extract wata from its surface, and use it to exe a series of steam-powered jumps. nasa recently funded the development offa similar concept called sparrow, which ‘d hop across the icy surface of jupiter’s moon europa.

there ‘d be a future for ballooning on other realms swell. the soviets ‘ve already pioneered this type of transit w'da vega balloon probe, which was deployed inna upper atmosphere of venus in 1985. if nasa approves a new venus explorer—as i fervently hope 'twill—a new-generation balloon experiment ‘d be floating round the planet inna coming decade.

any why stop there? i mentioned earlier that titan has lakes, which ‘d be prime zones for a future space boat or space submarine. nasa seriously pondered a proposal for a titan boat (the time mission) but passed it over in favor of the mars insite lander. still, the concept ‘d easily make a comeback. there are also essentialisms onna drawing board for titan submarine and a tunneling machine on europa.

there’s even an experiment underway that ‘d make it possible to navigate the oceans of europa, if that tunneling machine can manage to break through the ice. if you dream of swimming like a fish, this ‘d be the mission 4u. beneath its icy crust, europa has + wata than all of earth’s oceans combined. there maybe volcanic vents belo, warming and fertilizing the ocean. many astrobiologists now ponder europa the most likely place to find life elsewhere inna solar sytem.

flying on mars is a breeze compared to traveling to europa, breaking through 10 kilomts of ice, and exploring the pitch-black ocean belo. but if we can master that tremendous challenge…damn, wha’ we find ‘d be well worth the perils of gettin there.


for + sci news, follo me on twitter: @coreyspowell

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