NASA has made history when the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter successfully attempted the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.
"Altimeter data confirms that Ingenuity has performed the first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet," announced an engineer in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the control room cheered.
In a post on Twitter, NASA said: "The #MarsHelicopter made history today by being the first craft to achieve controlled, powered flight on a planet beyond Earth."
The space agency had originally planned the flight for 11 April but postponed it over a software issue that was identified during a planned high-speed test of the aircraft's rotors.
The issue has since been resolved, and the 1.8kg drone achieved its feat shortly before midday Irish time.
NASA workers react as the Perseverance rover feeds back images of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter making history with the first human-controlled flight on another planet | https://t.co/2CQKyPt873 pic.twitter.com/SqO3w6pc0j— RTÉ News (@rtenews) April 19, 2021
"Each world gets only one first flight," said MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity project manager, before the first attempt.
The first powered flight on Earth was achieved by the Wright brothers in 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
A piece of fabric from that plane was tucked inside Ingenuity in honour of that feat.
The helicopter travelled to Mars attached to the underside of the rover Perseverance, which touched down on the planet on 18 February on a mission to search for signs of extraterrestrial life.
The little rotorcraft that could.🚁💨— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) April 19, 2021
Ingenuity documented its historic ascent today. Here's the #MarsHelicopter's POV during first flight. That's its shadow on the ground below. pic.twitter.com/wXgLyTDbjm
Ingenuity's goal, by contrast, is to demonstrate its technology works, and it will not contribute to Perseverance's science goals.
But it is hoped that Ingenuity can pave the way for future flyers that revolutionise our exploration of celestial bodies because they can reach areas that rovers cannot go, and travel much faster.
The flight attempt was challenging because the air on Mars is so thin - less than 1% of the pressure of Earth's atmosphere.
That makes it much harder to achieve lift, even though it will be partly aided by a gravitational pull that is a third of Earth's.
The helicopter rose for about six seconds, hover and rotated for about 30 seconds, then went back down.
The flight was autonomous, pre-programmed into the aircraft because of the 15 minutes it takes for signals to travel from Earth to Mars.
Ingenuity itself will analyse its position with respect to the Martian surface.
After the flight, Ingenuity will send Perseverance technical data on what it has done, and that information will be transmitted back to Earth.
This will include a black and white photo of the Martian surface that Ingenuity is programmed to snap while flying.
Later, once its batteries have charged up again, Ingenuity is to transmit another photo - in colour, of the Martian horizon, taken with a different camera.
But the most spectacular images are supposed to come from the rover Perseverance, which will film the flight from a few metres away.
Shortly after this filming, six videos of 2.5 seconds each will be sent to Earth. NASA hopes at least one of them will show the helicopter in flight. The entire video will be sent over the following few days.
"There will be surprises, and you will be learning about them right at the same time that we will. So let's all get the popcorn," said Elsa Jensen, who oversees the cameras on the rover.
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