Robotic rovers – the wheeled vehicles decked out with solar panels and cameras – have been slowly racking up mileage on the Martian surface since 2004, when Spirit and Opportunity dropped in for a look around. If you’re counting, there are five rovers there now: Sojourner, Opportunity, Spirit, Curiosity, and Perseverance.
So on Monday, when a 4-pound helicopter named Ingenuity rose 10 feet from the Martian surface and hovered for 39 seconds, it was only appropriate that the latest robotic feat was captured on video by Perseverance. Robots look after each other, with some human assistance.
In a week that started with closing arguments in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd, and on the heels of the pandemic claiming its 3 millionth victim worldwide, a brief escape to the red planet was a bright spot in science.
There has been healthy debate in some circles about whether robots might be the best option for space exploration. The ongoing experiments on Mars continue to support those who believe these machines are more versatile and certainly more expendable than astronauts. Robots seem to do remarkably well on the Martian surface where the toxic atmosphere and extremely high and low temperatures would kill an unprotected human in seconds.
Some folks in older age brackets can recall the days when space travel had the whole world glued to grainy TV screens showing the early space walks and moon landings.
We’ve come a long way, with spacecraft now traveling outside our solar system and robots poking round the surface of our nearest planetary neighbor.
Ingenuity’s first brief flight in the thin Martian atmosphere opens another door for humans to – remotely, at least – continue to look around.
“A whole new way to explore the alien terrain in our solar system is now at our disposal,” astronomer Daniel Brown of Nottingham Trent University in England told the Associated Press.
It’s good to tune in to find out what human ingenuity has created and what the Ingenuity copter might discover next.