NASA's helicopter on Mars performs first powered aircraft flight on another planet


NASA is about to find out whether its Mars helicopter successfully flew its first flight - a feat that could revolutionize spaceflight.

"Altimeter data confirms that Ingenuity has performed its first flight - the first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet", announced an engineer in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the control room cheered. Ingenuity actually has a much more powerful processor on board than even the Perseverance rover itself, and that's because it intends to gather massive amounts of data about what happens during its flight test so that it can transmit that to the rover, which then leapfrogs the information back to Earth.

Ingenuity quickly sent back a black-and-white image from its downward pointing navigation camera, showing its bug-like shadow cast on the surface.

"We're doing everything we can to make it a success, but we also know that we may have to scrub and try again", Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory explained on Saturday. "We together flew at Mars and we together now have our Wright Brothers moment".

The first powered flight on Earth was achieved by the Wright brothers in 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. A small piece of fabric from the Wright Brothers' aircraft is carried on board Ingenuity.

The flight was challenging because of conditions vastly different from Earth's - an atmosphere that has less than one percent the density of our own, and gravitational pull of only a third.

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If all goes to plan, the 1.8 kilogramme whirligig will slowly ascend straight up to an altitude of three metres above the Martian surface, hover in place for 30 seconds, then rotate before descending to a gentle landing on all four legs.

Because data must be sent to and returned from the Red Planet over hundreds of millions of km using orbiting satellites and NASA's Deep Space Network, Ingenuity can not be flown with a joystick, and its flight was not observable from Earth in real time.

The robot rotorcraft was carried to the red planet strapped to the belly of Nasa's Mars rover Perseverance, a mobile astrobiology lab that touched down on February 18 in Jezero Crater after a almost seven-month journey through space. Additional flights could be added as part of an extended mission.

Nasa hopes Ingenuity - a technology demonstration separate from Perseverance's primary mission to search for traces of ancient microorganisms - paves the way for aerial surveillance of Mars and other destinations in the solar system, such as Venus or Saturn's moon, Titan.

Typing "Ingenuity NASA" into Google's search bar returns the usual info card containing all sorts of information about the Mars helicopter.