Mars Perseverance, helicopter Ingenuity carry Dayton know-how with them

This illustration made available by NASA depicts the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars after launching from the Perseverance rover, background left. It will be the first aircraft to attempt controlled flight on another planet. (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)
Caption
This illustration made available by NASA depicts the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars after launching from the Perseverance rover, background left. It will be the first aircraft to attempt controlled flight on another planet. (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)

Credit: Uncredited

Credit: Uncredited

The Mars helicopter Ingenuity flew on the surface of the red planet Monday, taking a bit of Dayton history with it.

The $85 million helicopter carries a small patch of fabric from the lower left wing of the 1903 Wright Flyer, and the Mars rover from which the copter launched has additional, distinct Dayton-area technological connections, thanks to the University of Dayton and L3Harris in Mason.

Ingenuity’s achievement marks the first powered flight on the surface of another planet. The Wrights’ 1903 Flyer, of course, was the first airplane that flew in a piloted, powered flight, over a North Carolina beach in 1903.

The Mars copter flight happened Monday, not long after the 154th anniversary of Wilbur Wright’s birth (April 16).

“We are beyond thrilled,” Brady Kress, Dayton History chief executive, said Monday, noting Ingenuity’s milestone.

Brady Kress, Dayton History president and chief executive, with an original 1905 Wright Flyer III in a building at Carillon Park designed by Orville Wright. This airplane was flown at Huffman Prairie by the Wrights and is considered the first practical airplane as it was controlled in climb, descent, turn and bank in ever increasing duration. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
Caption
Brady Kress, Dayton History president and chief executive, with an original 1905 Wright Flyer III in a building at Carillon Park designed by Orville Wright. This airplane was flown at Huffman Prairie by the Wrights and is considered the first practical airplane as it was controlled in climb, descent, turn and bank in ever increasing duration. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

That piece of fabric has really been around, Kress noted. It was part of the Wright Brothers-built plane that was destroyed by wind after the Dayton brothers’ fourth historic flight on Dec. 17, 1903, the day of that first human-piloted powered flight.

While the Wright Brothers were having lunch, strong winds off the freezing dunes of Kitty Hawk, N.C. picked up the whole plane and tumbled it down the beach and “just destroyed it,” Kress said.

ExploreGenerator keeping the new Mars rover warm has a Dayton history

Many parts (but not all) of the plane were gathered, rolled up, packaged, returned to Dayton and stored in a shed that was swamped nearly a decade later by the Great Flood of 1913, Kress said. The brothers laid the fabric out in the sun afterwards to dry what remained.

This particular fabric was in Orville Wright’s possession until 1947 or 1948 when he gifted it to friend and historic Dayton engineer Edward Deeds, founder of Delco, who was building Carillion Park and a museum in the park at the time, Kress said.

Since then — and until the recent Mars Perseverance Rover mission, which launched last July — the cloth has been kept by the organization today known as Dayton History; in fact, since the 1950s, it was kept in a humble safety deposit box.

“They’re around,” Kress said, referring to remaining examples of fabric from Wright-made airplanes. “They’re on some people’s walls. You can see them once in a while. But they’re not making more of it. There certainly is a limited supply.”

He added with a laugh: “We don’t just fire it off to any planet.”

The fabric will never return to Earth.

That’s not the only Dayton-area connection for Perseverance and Ingenuity.

Technology created by L3Harris in Mason helps NASA receive data and images from the rover. About half of L3′s nearly 800 Mason employees were directly or indirectly involved with preparation for the mission.

JPL uploaded a new software program to Ingenuity for the historic copter flight through an L3Harris transceiver, which can be thought of as the communication link or a “radio” on the rover, said Mark Dapore, chief technologist for L3Harris.

It’s that communication link that’s making possible what Dapore on Monday called “this cool stuff” associated with the rover mission.

Dapore is enjoying this moment and others. “We’re absolutely thrilled with how well everything is going. I continue to marvel at how clever JPL is,” he said, referring to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The crew at L3Harris is monitoring the Perseverance mission daily and stands ready to answer whatever questions or issues JPL may have at any time, he added.

“We are absolutely in an active support role,” Dapore said.

And the power generator keeping Perseverance warm has a strong Dayton-area pedigree.

This illustration shows the events that occur in the final minutes of the nearly seven-month journey that NASA’s Perseverance rover takes to Mars. Hundreds of critical events must execute perfectly and exactly on time today for the rover to land on Mars safely. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Caption
This illustration shows the events that occur in the final minutes of the nearly seven-month journey that NASA’s Perseverance rover takes to Mars. Hundreds of critical events must execute perfectly and exactly on time today for the rover to land on Mars safely. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The rover is powered by a radioactive plutonium generator, which traces its lineage back to the radioisotope thermoelectric generator invented by scientists at what was the Mound complex in Miamisburg in the mid-1950s.

Mound is the birthplace of the generator technology more so than the materials, because obviously the materials have evolved significantly in the decades since, said University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI) scientist Chad Barklay. Barklay is a former Mound employee with his UDRI colleague, engineer Allan Tolson.

“That was very exciting the day it landed, and it landed safely,” Tolson told the Dayton Daily News in February. “I know I was very humbled but pleased, happy. It has been a part of history, something you can tell your kids and grandkids about. It’s overwhelming sometimes.”

The Mound complex, atop a hill in Miamisburg, manufactured nuclear weapons parts and performed nuclear materials research for decades. The site operated from 1948 to 2003 and at its peak employed about 2,500 people, occupying 116 buildings covering 306 acres.

Touchdown was clean

The helicopter achieved its planned altitude of 10 feet (3 meters), according to the altimeter data, and hovered for a full 30 seconds, appearing stable. The touchdown looked just as clean. More details were expected in the coming hours and days.

To accomplish all this, the helicopter’s twin, counter-rotating rotor blades needed to spin at 2,500 revolutions per minute — five times faster than on Earth. With an atmosphere just 1 percent the thickness of Earth’s, engineers had to build a helicopter light enough — with blades spinning fast enough — to generate this otherworldy lift. At the same time, it had to be sturdy enough to withstand the Martian wind and extreme cold.

More than six years in the making, Ingenuity is a barebones 19 inches (49 centimeters) tall, a spindly four-legged chopper. Its fuselage, containing all the batteries, heaters and sensors, is the size of a tissue box. The carbon-fiber, foam-filled rotors are the biggest pieces: Each pair stretches 4 feet (1.2 meters) tip to tip.

The helicopter is topped with a solar panel for recharging the batteries, crucial for its survival during the minus-130 degree Fahrenheit (minus-90 degree-Celsius) Martian nights.

NASA chose a flat, relatively rock-free patch for Ingenuity’s airfield, measuring 33 feet by 33 feet (10 meters by 10 meters). It turned out to be less than 100 feet (30 meters) from the original landing site in Jezero Crater. The helicopter was released from the rover onto the airfield on April 3. Flight commands were sent Sunday, after controllers sent up a software correction for the rotor blade spin-up.

Following Monday’s success, NASA named the Martian airfield “Wright Brothers Field.”

“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’s science missions chief Thomas Zurbuchen announced.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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