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NASA's 'Wright Brothers moment'; flies first helicopter on Mars

The confirmation came through a satellite on Mars which relayed the helicopter's adventurous flight back to Earth. NASA has promised more such flights in the days ahead

twitter-logoBusinessToday.In | April 19, 2021 | Updated 19:04 IST
NASA's 'Wright Brothers moment'; flies first helicopter on Mars
NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity is seen during its first flight on the planet in this still image taken from a video on April 19, 2021. (Photo: Reuters)

NASA has successfully flown a small helicopter on Mars. The American space agency's miniature robot chopper called 'Ingenuity' was airborne for less than a minute early on Monday, April 19.

With this, NASA has achieved the first powered, controlled flight by an aircraft on another planet. The confirmation came through a satellite on Mars which relayed the helicopter's adventurous flight back to Earth. NASA has promised more such flights in the days ahead. Hailing the triumph, the US space agency tweeted the video.

"You wouldn't believe what I just saw. More images and video to come... #MarsHelicopter http://go.nasa.gov/ingenuity," it posted.

"It happened. Today our #MarsHelicopter proved that powered, controlled flight from the surface of another planet is possible. It takes a little ingenuity, perseverance, and spirit to make that opportunity a reality: https://go.nasa.gov/3tvLoed," the American space agency said in another tweet.

The twin-rotor whirligig's debut on the Red Planet marked a 21st-century 'Wright Brothers moment' for NASA, which said success could pave the way for new modes of exploration on Mars and other destinations in the solar system, such as Venus and Saturn's moon Titan.

A crew awaits the flight of NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity in this still image taken from a video on April 19, 2021. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/Handout via REUTERS

Mission managers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles burst into applause and cheers as engineering data beamed back from Mars confirmed that the 4-pound (1.8-kg) solar-powered helicopter had performed its maiden 40-second flight precisely as planned three hours earlier.

Also Read: NASA releases pictures of stunning icy blue dunes on Mars' surface

The robot rotorcraft was programmed to ascend 10 feet (3 metres) straight up, then hover and rotate in place over the Martian surface for half a minute before settling back down on its four legs.

During NASA's presentation of the event livestreamed from JPL headquarters, mission managers also displayed the first images from the flight.

A black-and-white photo taken by a downward-pointing onboard camera while the helicopter was aloft showed the distinct shadow cast by Ingenuity in the Martian sunlight onto the ground just below it.

And a snippet of color video footage captured by a separate camera mounted on the NASA's Mars rover Perseverance, parked about 200 feet away, showed the helicopter in flight against the orange-colored landscape surrounding it.

"We can now say that human beings have flown an aircraft on another planet," said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at JPL.

NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity starts its first flight on the planet in this still image taken from a video on April 19, 2021. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/Handout via REUTERS

Despite the flight's brevity, it marked a historic feat in interplanetary aviation, taking place on an "airfield" 173 million miles from Earth on the floor of a vast Martian basin called Jezero Crater.

NASA likened the achievement to the Wright Brothers' first controlled flight of their motor-driven airplane near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December 1903 - a takeoff and landing that covered just 120 feet (37 meters) in 12 seconds.

Paying tribute to that modest but monumental first flight, NASA engineers affixed a tiny swath of wing fabric from the original Wright flyer under Ingenuity's solar panel before sending it on its way to Mars.

The tiny rotorcraft was carried to the Red Planet strapped to the belly of the Mars rover Perseverance, a six-wheeled astrobiology lab that touched down in Jezero Crater on February 18 after a nearly seven-month journey through space.

Ingenuity was developed as a technology demonstration, separate from Perseverance's primary mission to search for traces of ancient microorganisms and collect samples of Martian rock for eventual return to Earth for further analysis.NASA's Mars rover Perseverance is the most advanced astrobiology lab ever sent to another world.

The shadow of NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity is seen during its first flight on the planet in this still image taken from a video on April 19, 2021. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/Handout via REUTERS

With the helicopter's first outing deemed a success, NASA plans to send the aircraft on several additional, progressively more ambitious flights in the weeks ahead.

Building a helicopter that could fly on Mars posed a major challenge for JPL engineers.

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While Mars possesses much less gravity to overcome than Earth, its atmosphere is just 1% as dense, making it especially difficult to generate aerodynamic lift. To compensate, engineers equipped Ingenuity with rotor blades that are larger (four feet long) and spin far more rapidly than would be needed on Earth for a similar aircraft of its size.

The design was successfully tested in vacuum chambers built at JPL to simulate Martian conditions, but it remained to be seen whether Ingenuity would actually fly on the fourth planet from the sun, until Monday.

The team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) react after the Mars helicopter Ingenuity's first flight on the planet in this still image taken from a video on April 19, 2021. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/Handout via REUTERS

Because of the enormous distances involved, Ingenuity was designed to execute pre-programmed flight instructions autonomously, using sophisticated onboard pilot and navigation systems.

Also Read: NASA releases first audio from Mars after Perseverance landing

The small, lightweight aircraft also had to withstand punishing cold, with night-time temperatures dropping as low as 130 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius), using solar power alone to recharge and keep its internal components properly heated.

The planned flight was delayed for a week by a technical glitch during a test spin of the aircraft's rotors on April 9. But NASA said it resolved that issue by transmitting a few additional commands to its flight sequence last week.

(With inputs from Reuters.)

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