NASA’s Mars Ingenuity helicopter has made history this morning after successfully completing the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.
NASA announced the news live on Monday morning after receiving the data downlink in the Space Flight Operations Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles, where it was confirmed that the Ingenuity helicopter had successfully executed its flight on Mars, with data showing that it had taken off, ascended to around 10ft (three meters) above the surface of Mars, and landed again.
— NASA (@NASA) April 19, 2021
“We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL. “We’ve been talking for so long about our Wright brothers’ moment on Mars. And here it is. This project has had many friends who contributed to its success. And Perseverance rover, the best host little Ingenuity could have.”
She added: “We know that our time to make a difference at Jezero Crater on Mars is not yet over. Let’s enjoy this moment but we must enjoy this moment because over the years there are people who have never let me celebrate fully – every time we hit one of these major milestones: ‘not yet, not yet.’ Take that moment and then after that let’s get back to work.”
The helicopter, which weighs about four pounds with a wingspan of 1.2 meters, is powered by batteries that are charged through solar panels on its top side, and at a full battery, the helicopter can fly for about 90 seconds, according to NASA. It then must land safely and charge enough of its battery again to power the heater onboard as this protects the helicopter from the Red Planet’s cold nights.
Meanwhile, the Mars Perseverance Rover was equipped with an instrument, which was built by the helicopter team, to collect data from Ingenuity that could then be transmitted to satellites over Mars and sent back to the Deep Space Network antennas on Earth before being received by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where the data could be processed and assessed by the team.
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This flight marks a major milestone for NASA because the Ingenuity aircraft was powered by pre-programmed sequences, meaning that it was flying completely autonomously, with no joysticks or remote control technology involved. The space agency previously billed the flight as a potential “Wright Brothers moment” – referencing the first powered, controlled aircraft flight on Earth in 1903.
Ingenuity was forced to remain grounded on the surface of the Red Planet for longer than initially planned, as NASA engineers worked on pre-flight checks for the experimental mission. The flight itself was postponed on several occasions to allow the team more time to detect and diagnose any problems, including technological challenges, such as when the helicopter’s rotors stopped spinning.