Herders of Mars

Photo: NASA

With the maiden flight of NASA’s Ingenuity, we celebrated one of the most significant engineering milestones of recent times. Despite having to contend with lower gravity and a thinner atmosphere, an aircraft flew on Mars for the first time. It was the first powered, controlled flight of a human-built vehicle on another planet—a significance celebrated by the onboard inclusion of a tiny scrap of material from the Wright brothers’ first flyer. 

The Ingenuity flights were relatively modest in duration, but they were a proof of concept. What comes next will be interesting. The Wright brothers’ first hop was shorter in length than the wingspan of the Boeing 747, which first took to the skies only sixty-six years after Kitty Hawk. Who knows what we could have flying through the Martian clouds sixty-six years from now?

The first thought I have is of a massive blimp carrying several dozen of these helicopters. Being solar powered, there’s little reason it can’t stay aloft for days, weeks, maybe even years. Every time the scientists on Earth identify a location of potential interest, the blimp dispatches a helicopter to investigate, soaring over any intervening rough terrain with more ease and speed than a rover.

A helicopter has the potential to get up-close and personal with the strata in a cliff face—something that’s obviously difficult for a ground-based vehicle. A fleet of them could traverse and map the length of the great Valles Marineras canyons without worrying about the bumpy topography.

But why stop with an automated blimp? Viewers of The Martian will remember long sequences of Matt Damon bouncing around in a rover for weeks as he treks towards salvation. But what if he’d been able to jump in a helicopter and fly there in a day? When humans start building bases on Mars, helicopters would be as valuable to them as they are for bases in the Artic and Antarctica. They could be used to airlift personnel to areas of potential interest identified via satellite survey. They could fly missions to resupply forward outposts, and rescue explorers stranded by injury or technical malfunction. They could even—god forbid—be used for security and defence. 

Science fiction writers get a lot of mileage from imagining worst-case scenarios. We find drama in the idea of things going wrong. So, while I hope that in the near future we as a species will outgrow our childish infatuation with war, Mars is an entire planet filled with currently unclaimed resources and territory. A bright red jewel hanging just within our reach. Can our acquisitive monkey natures resist squabbling over such a prize? Only 15 years after Wilbur and Orville showed powered flight was possible, squadrons of biplanes were dogfighting in the war-torn skies over France. So, now I’m imagining a drone war on Mars, fought remotely by competing governments or corporations, each vying for control of profitable ore deposits or water sources. Helicopter gunships whispering through the thin air, hunting for enemy rovers. Mass accelerators on Phobos and Deimos wiping out mining installations with meteoric bombardment from on high…

Air travel shrank the Earth. Instead of spending months sailing to Australia, it is now possible to get there in a matter of a day or two. The same will be true of Mars. If we build the right aircraft, we’ll be able to go anywhere on the planet—and don’t forget how much smaller Mars is already. Where Earth’s diameter is 7,926 miles, the diameter of Mars is only 4,220 miles. So, while the technical challenges are huge, the distances are shorter and the gravity is lighter.

But why stop there? Now we know we can engineer machines able to fly in different gravities and through different atmospheric compositions, we should be building choppers capable of exploring the cloud tops of Venus. Huge machines with rotors the size of wind turbines could track the storm systems in Jupiter’s atmosphere, or cruise the ochre skies of Titan seeking life in its hydrocarbon lakes.

However, I’m going to end this post with a truly science fictional image. Imagine, if you will, a Mars in the not too distant future, where a combination of terraforming techniques have thickened the atmosphere enough for hardy plants to grow and specially adapted animals to roam the surface. And on this new tundra, shaggy herds of reindeer and buffalo graze the tough, wiry grass, watched over by autonomous helicopter shepherds, while overhead, two moons shine in the afternoon sky.


This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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Author: Gareth L Powell

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