NASA successfully flies the first-ever helicopter on Mars

Click to play video: 'NASA’s Mars Ingenuity helicopter successfully makes 1st flight on Red Planet'
NASA’s Mars Ingenuity helicopter successfully makes 1st flight on Red Planet
NASA's miniature robot helicopter Ingenuity performed a successful takeoff and landing on Mars early on Monday, achieving the first powered, controlled flight by an aircraft over the surface of another planet, the U.S. space agency said. – Apr 19, 2021

We have liftoff on Mars.

NASA’s Ingenuity mission is living up to its name, after the successful launch of the first-ever helicopter to fly on Mars.

NASA released photos and videos of the tiny Ingenuity aircraft hovering above the Martian surface on Monday morning, some 118 years after the first human-made aircraft flew on our own planet.

The footage shows the tissue box-like aircraft lifting off on its stacked propellers before landing again. One photo captured by Ingenuity itself shows the aircraft’s shadow beneath it.

Ingenuity’s shadow is shown on the surface of Mars on Apr. 19, 2021. NASA/JPL

“You wouldn’t believe what I just saw,” NASA’s Perseverance rover tweeted, along with a brief clip of the aircraft hovering above the ground. Perseverance served as the aircraft’s witness and communication relay for the flight.

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The tiny rotocopter ascended about three metres (10 feet) into the air and hovered in place for 30 seconds above Mars’ Jezero Crater, NASA says. It then descended and safely touched down again for a total flight time of 39.1 seconds.

The entire flight was autonomous, with onboard systems and algorithms doing all the work, NASA says. That means that NASA engineers could only sit back and cross their fingers while the drone controlled itself. They waited hours for the full results to transmit back to Earth, before erupting in cheers upon reading the data.

“Altimeter data confirms that Ingenuity has performed its first flight, the first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet!” said Håvard Grip, the helicopter’s chief pilot back on Earth, after the results became clear.

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The test flight is a major win for human exploration of Mars, which until now has been limited to ground-based vehicles on the Red Planet’s surface. It’s also a major aviation achievement that many are comparing to the Wright Brothers’ first-ever flight of an aircraft in 1903.

NASA marked the achievement by dubbing the launch spot the 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.

“Ingenuity is the latest in a long and storied tradition of NASA projects achieving a space exploration goal once thought impossible,” acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said in a statement. “We don’t know exactly where Ingenuity will lead us, but today’s results indicate the sky — at least on Mars — may not be the limit.”

“We’ve been talking so long about our Wright Brothers moment, and here it is,” project manager MiMi Aung said.

Footage from the NASA celebration shows Aung ripping up her backup plan in case the flight crashed.

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The little helicopter came with big risks and a big price tag of US$85 million, but NASA scientists say it was well worth the gamble.

“A whole new way to explore the alien terrain in our solar system is now at our disposal,” said Nottingham Trent University astronomer Daniel Brown.

The aircraft itself is a tiny chopper weighing no more than 1.2 kilograms (four pounds). It stands 49 centimetres (19 inches) tall on four legs, with a shiny square body, two foam-filled carbon fire rotors and a solar panel on its very top. The rotors each measure 1.2 metres (four feet) from tip to tip.

Ingenuity arrived on Mars in February along with NASA’s Perseverance rover. Perseverance is there to look for signs of ancient Martian life, while Ingenuity’s mission is largely a proof of concept.

Click to play video: 'Ingenuity project manager on the hurdles in making a helicopter fly over Mars'
Ingenuity project manager on the hurdles in making a helicopter fly over Mars

In other words, NASA just wants to see if they can fly something in the thinner Martian atmosphere. Now that they know they can, they’ll keep testing to see what else they can do with the craft.

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More details about the flight are expected to come out this week. NASA is also planning at least four additional flights to see what Ingenuity can do.

“We will take a moment to celebrate our success and then take a cue from Orville and Wilbur (Wright) regarding what to do next,” Aung said in a statement.

“History shows they got back to work — to learn as much as they could about their new aircraft — and so will we.”

— With files from The Associated Press

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