CEO DailyCFO DailyBroadsheetData SheetTerm Sheet

Mars helicopter: NASA’s little engine that could

April 20, 2021, 3:43 PM UTC

While walking the other day, I noticed a pale brown eggshell, cracked in half, beneath a pear tree. No sign of a baby bird in sight. I hoped the little one was all right, and that its wings would soon be testing the sun-warmed breeze, enjoying the spring thaw as much as this author.

That bird—and my aspirations for it—came to mind while I observed NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter, an autonomous interplanetary drone, conduct its first flight on Mars Monday morning. The mission was a success: The droid’s blades whirred up—achieving speeds five times faster than earthly rotorcraft—to hoist itself in the thin Martian air. The scout hovered for 39 seconds before settling back onto the regolith.

Wow, look at the little guy go! I thought to myself as I viewed the video, beamed back to Earth by NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover. The odds appeared so stacked against the fledgling robot, set against the dusty, barren, emptiness of the Martian landscape. So small. So slight. So insubstantial. Like a bug.

How can such a tiny machine survive in that big ole, unforgiving world? I kept thinking of MiMi Aung, the project manager in charge of the helicopter crew at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, marveling over the drone’s tenacity during an interview. “Ingenuity, our little four-pounder, has been on the surface of Mars, keeping itself warm throughout the cold nights, down to minus-130 degrees Fahrenheit, and it’s been doing that everyday!” She crowed.

I am not the only one whose heartstrings were tugged. Marina Koren at The Atlantic documented her own “fuzzy feelings” toward Ingenuity and how, “when robots show such lifelike behaviors, our social brains react with empathy.” NASA encourages those emotions by intentionally anthropomorphizing its robots, giving its rovers cute identities and Twitter accounts, she notes. (Perseverance’s hobbies are apparently photography, collecting rocks, and off-roading.)

One mustn’t get too attached though. Ingenuity’s upcoming ventures—the next one is slated for Thursday—will grow increasingly daring. “We have planned up to five flights of incremental difficulty,” Aung noted in a press conference. On one of these outings, the copter may end up as a pile of debris strewn across the ground, or as an abandoned monument to humanity’s skyward striving, to be covered over, eventually, by dust storm. Dust to dust, the way all things go.

Despite that ending, the little-copter-that-could’s tech demo heralds a bright future when humans, aided by machines, will explore alien worlds from alien skies. The robo-rotors should be able to dart into caves and act as a forward scouts for rovers, overcoming challenging terrain. Just like 1997’s Sojourner, the first Mars rover, paved the way for future rover missions—up through Perseverance—Ingenuity signals copter missions to come. (Already there is a drone mission planned for Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.)

Maybe, someday, Ingenuity’s progeny will ferry humans around extraterrestrial worlds. Even little hatchlings one day learn to fly.

Robert Hackett
Twitter: @rhhackett
robert.hackett@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Flick of the wrist. At its first event since being acquired by Google in Jan., Fitbit unveiled a fitness wristband called Luxe for $150. Per Aaron's review, the device comes in snazzy gold, silver, and graphite options, and it tracks people's exercise, sleep and stress levels. The band doesn't have the smarts of a smartwatch though, and it is as yet lacking integrations with Google services. 

Bottled-up excitement. The gadget-fest continues. Apple is hosting its first event of the year today, called "spring loaded," at 1 p.m. ET. Aaron writes that the iPad Pro and iMac computer product lines may be getting upgrades. It's also possible that the iPhone-maker will release AirTags, its widely anticipated Bluetooth-tracker tiles for keeping track of personal items like key rings. 

Répétez, s’il vous Apple-ait. Speaking of Apple, the conservative-friendly, alt-social media service Parler will soon be reinstated in the iPhone App Store. Apple said it removed the app because it let hate speech and incitements to violence run amok on its service after the Jan. 6th Capitol Hill riots. In a letter to Congress, Apple said Parler had made sufficient adjustments to its policies to get the nod.

You can't, you won't, and you GameStop. George Sherman, GameStop's chief executive, plans to step down by July 31st. He joined in August 2019, and he was the fifth person to hold the title since 2017. Ryan Cohen, the Chewy founder who became a GameStop investor and board member, is pushing for an e-commerce revitalization of the video game retailer, including by bringing in key hires from Amazon

Listen all y'all it's a sabotage. Meanwhile, GameStop's biggest frenemy, Vlad Tenev, the chief executive of stock-trading app Robinhood, is starting up a podcast called, cleverly, Under The Hood. He's not the only one. As Aaron noted yesterday, Facebook is also getting in on the audio game with a Spotify partnership and a Clubhouse clone. So is...Reddit?

Don't Tread on me. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is warning people with children and pets to stop using Peloton's Tread+ treadmill "immediately." The agency found 38 instances where the exercise equipment caused injuries and another that resulted in death. A Peloton spokesperson called the warning "inaccurate and misleading," while investors bid down the company's share price 10% on the news.

How you gonna Doge me like that? Like a Very Good Boy, Dogecoin has been making its owners very happy. The joke cryptocurrency is up 400% to $0.40 per coin over the past week as traders pile into what is basically a meme stock. (Okay, a meme crypto?) While Bitcoin has fallen off its historic highs, traders are now pushing to make today—yes, 4/20—Doge Day. PayPal somehow missed the memo: Today, Venmo said it will start letting people trade cryptocurrency, as long as it is Bitcoin, Ethereum, Litecoin, or Bitcoin Cash. Sorry, Doge.

In computers' defense, "enjoin" is a very weird word.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

How is a down-and-out, essentially failed state like North Korea pulling off global cyber coups? The New Yorker dives into the Hermit Kingdom's rise as a hacking superpower. The country's relentless bank heists, ransomware attacks, and cryptocurrency thefts allow it to circumvent economic sanctions and bring in billions of dollars in revenue. Everyone likes an underdog story, right?

In satellite images of East Asia at night, lights blare almost everywhere, except in one inky patch between the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan, and between the thirty-eighth and the forty-third parallels: North Korea. Only Pyongyang, the capital, emits a recognizably modern glow. The dark country is one of the last nominally Communist nations in the world—a Stalinist personality cult centered on Kim Jong Un, the peevish, ruthless scion of the dynasty that has ruled North Korea since 1948, after the peninsula was divided. The D.P.R.K. purports to be a socialist autarky founded on the principle of juche, or self-reliance. Its borders are closed and its people sequestered. Foreigners find it profoundly difficult to understand what is happening inside North Korea, but it is even harder for ordinary North Korean citizens to learn about the outside world. A tiny fraction of one per cent of North Koreans has access to the Internet.

Yet, paradoxically, the North Korean government has produced some of the world’s most proficient hackers. At first glance, the situation is perverse, even comical—like Jamaica winning an Olympic gold in bobsledding—but the cyber threat from North Korea is real and growing.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

The great crypto decoupling trade—bitcoin bombs, as Dogecoin makes its owners very happy by Bernhard Warner

People are canceling video streaming subscriptions at record rates ahead of Netflix earnings by Martine Paris

Elon Musk weighs in on the mysterious Tesla crash that killed two, shares rebound by Dana Hull

‘Seductive charm’: There’s a surprising thread linking Ponzi, Madoff and today’s brazen crypto scammers by Eric J. Lyman

At Shanghai’s auto show, Tesla faces a woman’s viral protest—and Chinese rivals by Clay Chandler and Eamon Barrett

This biotech startup thinks it can delay menopause by 15 years. That would transform women’s lives by Beth Kowitt

Gen Z gamers are poised to shake up the media and entertainment industries for good by Kevin Westcott and Jana Arbanas

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access.Thank you for supporting our journalism.)

BEFORE YOU GO

The next time someone sends you a document to review, take a moment to pay your respects of Charles “Chuck” Geschke, cofounder of Adobe and developer of the "portable document format," or PDF. He died at his home in San Francisco on Friday, aged 81 years.

Geschke met his cofounder, John Warnock, at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in 1978. Four years later, the two early tech entrepreneurs left to create Adobe, now a $250 billion software giant. Crazy fact: Once, when Geschke was 52 years old, he was abducted by a gunman and held for ransom for four days.