NASA Mars chopper prepares for first ever flight on another planet

Laverne Higgins
April 19, 2021

The agency launched its Ingenuity helicopter into the atmosphere of Mars around 3:30 am ET, marking the first powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet.

The 1.8kg Ingenuity Mars Helicopter flew on the surface of Mars a number of hours ago, but data confirming the feat arrived shortly before 12pm Irish time.

The Ingenuity Mars helicopter travelled on Mars underneath the Mars Perseverance Rover. The Perseverance rover - which carried Ingenuity to Mars - watched the liftoff from a nearby overlook, filming as well. While the project considered updating the flight software to correct the problem, they elected instead to adjust the timing of commands, concluding from testing that it would allow the helicopter to take off 85% of the time.

"Each world gets only one first flight", project manager MiMi Aung noted earlier this month.

Speaking on a NASA webcast early on Monday, she called it the "ultimate dream".

Applause, cheers and laughter erupted in the operations centre when success was finally declared. But Ingenuity could pave the way for future extraterrestrial helicopters that would do reconnaissance for rovers and astronauts, study the surface of Mars or other planets from the air, and fly through canyons and cliffs that may be inaccessible to rovers. Next came the stunning color images of the helicopter descending back to the surface, taken by Perseverance, "the best host little Ingenuity could ever hope for", Aung said in thanking everyone.

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During Mimi Aung's speech, following the confirmation of the successful test flight, the NASA project manager also paid tribute to the vast power of data sharing, by reaching out to NASA's enormous remote work team and saying "I'm hugging you [all] virtually". With an atmosphere just 1 percent the thickness of Earth's, engineers had to build a helicopter light enough - with blades spinning fast enough - to generate this otherworldy lift. It spent about six seconds moving up to its goal altitude of three meters (ten feet).

The helicopter is topped with a solar panel for recharging the batteries, crucial for its survival during the -90 C Martian nights. Below that are two carbon fiber rotors that turn in opposite directions. It turned out to be less than 30 metres from the original landing site in Jezero Crater. Ingenuity re-did its full-speed spin test on Friday, and the blades performed as they should during flight.

Getting the helicopter into space was easy.

Up to five helicopter flights are planned, each one increasingly ambitious.

Ingenuity's team has until the beginning of May to complete the test flights.

The helicopter's mission is experimental in nature and completely independent of the rover's science mission - which is searching for signs of ancient life and collecting samples of rock and sediment in tubes for potential return to Earth by later missions. "We don't know exactly where Ingenuity will lead us, but today's results indicate the sky - at least on Mars - may not be the limit". "So let's all get the popcorn", said Elsa Jensen, who oversees the cameras on the rover.

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