‘Beyond amazing:’ Four RIT alumni share their contributions and reactions to Mars helicopter flight

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NEW MEXICO, N.Y. (WROC) — It was a brief hop — just 39 seconds and 10 feet (3 meters) — but with small flight came a big accomplishment.

NASA’s experimental helicopter Ingenuity rose into the thin air above the dusty red surface of Mars on Monday, achieving the first powered flight by an aircraft on another planet.

The triumph was hailed as a Wright brothers moment. The mini 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) copter even carried a bit of wing fabric from the Wright Flyer that made similar history at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903.

And — as always it seems — there’s a Rochester connection.

Rochester Institute of Technology tweeted Tuesday that four alumni, all of whom work at SolAero Technologies in New Mexico:

  • Zac Bittner, Principal Engineer for SolAero (Microelectronic Engineering B.S., 2011, Materials Science M.S., 2011, Microsystem Engineering PhD (2019)
  • Nicholos Mackos, Director of Operations, Panel (Mechanical Engineering B.S., 2008)
  • Chelsea Mackos, Director of Operations, Solar Cells and CICs (Microelectronic Engineering B.S., 2009, Material Science M.S., 2011)
  • Joseph Hunt, Senior Quality Engineer (Chemical Engineering B.S., 2019)

SolAero Technologies and the RIT team was involved with creating the solar panels that powered “Ingenuity,” the helicopter that came along for the ride with Perseverance, the latest rover to land on the Red Planet.

News 8 caught up with Hunt and Chelsea Mackos over the phone from the SolAero facility in New Mexico. This interview has been edited for length, and clarity.

Let’s go a little more into specifics on the solar panels and SolAero’s involvement here. Joe, I know you worked in quality control, so let’s go to Chelsea.

CM: When I started, I was doing sort of the initial research for the technology that was used on the panel.

We worked on the solar panels or solar cells involved with this, specifically the panel on the helicopter. And my involvement as a board engineer was reviewing all the test and additional paperwork that we needed to deliver to the customer.

In this case, we wouldn’t agree with it, and provide, the file quality sign off, but we had performed all the tasks that we had, the appropriate quality sign-offs.

What is different about these solar panels compared to the ones that we see here on Earth?

JH: So typical terrestrial solar panels are made of Silicon, which feels really good material, but it’s a bit heavier than the chemical composition that we used (for this project) and its not as efficient.

We use a combination of gallium and arsenic, for the electronics. That allows us with a little bit of extra chemistry to absorb a wider range of light, and have increased efficiency, a lower way to the cross, the spectrum of light to be absorbed.

(Here in the following quote, Hunt follows a the topic of a thinner atmosphere on Mars, which allows for more light to pass through)

JH: And it’s not so much different light, so much as it is more light… Light itself can be treated as kind of a form of energy. You can see effectively the solar panels are seeing or receiving light far beyond what the human eye can see into both the infrared and ultraviolet spectrum. So that allows the panels to be more efficient.

Going off of this difference in planets here, what is different about trying to power or fly a device on Mars compared to Earth?

CM: The atmosphere on Mars is much thinner than it is here on Earth. Also the gravity is different. There’s less gravity on Mars. So the proportion needed for the helicopter is very different…

The atmosphere is something around a hundred times thinner than the air we experience here.

So you push a whole lot less air for that lift. So there’s a whole lot that goes into the dimensions of what we’re building and windows of sense for travel. And of course, just how are you going to provide the appropriate amount of force with less material, less air to push against?

I am an arts journalist first. So I’m going to have to brush up on my laws of motion before I write this story. And being the Rochester guy I am, tell me about RIT and Rochester prepared you for this assignment?

JH: I actually grew up just outside of Rochester, I’m from Churchville originally. And so growing up, it just to became the number one choice. And the big thing for me was the professors that I had were really big on not just teaching you what to think, but how to think.

Plus, coming back for the co-op program, having that sort of constraint, that it’s going to be this many months to get something done before the grant runs out, I think that really helped me hit the ground running.

I interned (at SolAero) in the previous summer (before) I started work here — actually the September before we shipped this part out — just being able to jump in and grab on to everything that we were doing here and get moving.

CM: RIT was definitely crucial in my career path. I did the microelectronics program there, which is a program that specializes in semiconductor processing. A lot of folks that do that major ended up going to microchip companies, but because of the internship program, I realized pretty early on that maybe that’s not the direction I wanted to take my career; but that was only through the RIT internship program. I was able to figure out what I really wanted to do, what I really didn’t want to do.

And the research labs at RIT really… aligns very well with a career at as technologies.

So here’s the big one here: How did it feel when it took flight?

CM: It’s really amazing. I think one of those, one of my favorite things about working at SolAero is when you get to see a mission become successful; and this was definitely one of those missions that had a lot of press and people are excited about it.

It was also really cool to be able to talk to people about what I do when I work on, especially family. They don’t often get to hear about what I work on, or when do they sometimes don’t understand it. It was really cool to do something public that happened for SolAero, and the industry.

JH: It was beyond amazing… Knowing that even though we played a small fraction of the heavy lifting that landed (the rover), being able to share it and apply it… This is so accessible to everyone else.

You’ve got the whole technology that we understand, but this project has been really good and really easy to share, which is great.

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