American space agency NASA made history on Monday with a test flight of its miniature helicopter Ingenuity above the surface of Mars. Everything went according to the plan, and the chopper lifted off, becoming the first powered and controlled flight on another planet. The test flight took place on the floor of Martian land called Jezero Crater, almost 173 million miles away from Earth. NASA had Ingenuity lift up about 3 meter, hover for 30 seconds, swivel and then land back on Mars. The flight took place at 3:30 am US eastern daylight time.
“Perseverance got us to Mars. With Ingenuity, we soar higher. The Mars Helicopter made history today by being the first craft to achieve controlled, powered flight on a planet beyond Earth,” tweeted NASA.
Notably, radio signals take 15 minutes and 27 seconds to cross the current gap between Earth and Mars. NASA will receive images and video of the flight from cameras mounted on the helicopter and on the Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars touched down Martian land on 18 February. For a nearly seven-month journey through space perseverance carried the helicopter beneath it as it made its descent to Mars’ surface in February. And now for ingenuity”s first flight Perseverance will be parked 76 metres away from the mini-helicopter to collect and transmit data.
In a nod to the first such feat conducted on Earth, Ingenuity carries a swatch of fabric from the Wright brothers’ plane and is affixed under the copters solar panel. “The Wright brothers only had a handful of eyewitnesses to their first flight, but the historic moment was thankfully captured in a great photograph,” said Michael Watkins, director of JPL, in a statement. Ingenuity will now undertake several additional, lengthier flights in the weeks ahead, though it will need to rest four to five days in between each to recharge its batteries.
The helicopter will test flight conditions in the planet’s atmosphere, which is colder and has different levels of gravity. The pull of gravity on the Red Planet is less, which helps – but even so engineers have had to build the chopper very light with a mass of just 1.8kg. Mars possesses much less gravity than Earth, its atmosphere is just 1 per cent as dense.
“Mars is hard not only when you land, but when you try to take off from it and fly around, too,” said Aung in a statement.
Ingenuity is quipped with rotor blades that are four feet long and spin more rapidly than would be needed on Earth for an aircraft of its size. With this small yet important technology demonstration, the US Space agency is hopeful about how we could eventually transform how we explore some distant worlds.
“The primary purpose of this project is to get that detailed engineering data that we can see the performance of the vehicle, and then that data can be used by future projects to make even bigger and better helicopters,” said Tim Canham, Ingenuity operations lead at JPL.
NASA has been preparing for this mission for over eight years now. The flight was originally scheduled for April 11 but shifted after a command-sequence issue was discovered when the helicopter went through a system of preflight checks with its software.