NASA's Ingenuity helicopter makes first historic flight on Mars

April 19, 2021

A helicopter has made the first ever flight on another planet, NASA has said.

The Ingenuity mini-helicopter took to the Martian skies this morning - hovering 10ft (three metres) in the air before touching back down on the planet's surface, the space agency said.

It marks NASA's first attempt at a powered, controlled flight on another planet.

The news was met by cheers and applause at mission control, and pictures from the mission showed the craft hovering.

MiMi Aung, Ingenuity Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said: "We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet."

She added: "We've been talking for so long about our Wright brothers (the inventors of the world's first aeroplane) moment. And here it is."

Data from the first flight returned to Earth a few hours after the autonomous test.

NASA's Perseverance rover provided support during flight operations, taking images, collecting environmental data, and hosting the base station that enabled NASA to see the helicopter's successful mission.

Ingenuity works autonomously and cannot be controlled by NASA due to the distance between Earth and Mars - it takes more than 11 minutes to get transmit a radio signal 287 million kilometres (178 million miles) back to Earth.

NASA had been aiming for a 40-second flight, and while details were initially sparse, the craft hit all its targets: spin-up, take-off, hover, descent and landing.

The original flight date of 11 April was postponed as engineers worked on pre-flight checks and a solution to a command sequence issue.

Standing at just 50cm tall, the $85m helicopter weighs 1.8kg on Earth, but is a mere 0.68kg on Mars because of the red planet's lower gravity.

The rotor blades, which measure 1.2m across, rotated 40 times a second to get enough power to lift off in the Martian atmosphere - which is about 100 times thinner than Earth's.

Ingenuity first arrived at the planet's Jezero Crater on 18 February after an eight-month journey spanning nearly 300 million miles, tucked inside the belly of the Perseverance rover.

After the spacecraft landed, it dropped the drone onto the ground so Ingenuity could prepare for its maiden flight.

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One of Ingenuity's key objectives was to survive the "bone-chilling temperatures" of the red planet, with "nights as cold as minus 90C" and extreme winds, NASA said ahead of the flight.

Ingenuity will attempt additional experimental flights, travelling further distances and at increasing altitudes.

All together the helicopter will aim for up to five test flights within 30 Martian days (31 Earth days).

If successful, the demo could lead the way to a fleet of Martian drones in decades to come.

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