Ingenuity: NASA Makes History Again With First Flight on Mars

Ross Houston
April 19, 2021

"The Perseverance rover will provide support during flight operations, taking images, collecting environmental data, and hosting the base station that enables the helicopter to communicate with mission controllers on Earth".

"We've been talking for so long about our Wright Brothers moment on Mars, and here it is". This is a major achievement, in no small part because the atmosphere is so thin on Mars that creating a rotor-powered craft like Ingenuity that can actually use it to produce lift is a huge challenge.

The results will be sent via the Nasa Perseverance rover and a satellite on Mars that will beam them back to JPL on Earth. NASA will try to get Ingenuity to rise to about 10 feet above the Martian surface, hover for about 20 seconds, then land back at its airfield in Jerezo Crater.

"Altimeter data confirms that Ingenuity has performed its first flight, the first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet", said the helicopter's chief pilot back on Earth, Havard Grip, his voice breaking as his teammates erupted in cheers.

"Over the next month, the flights get progressively a little bit more advanced". Created to fly in the thin Martian atmosphere, the blades are much larger than would be needed for a similar-sized helicopter on Earth. Speaking on a NASA webcast early Monday, she called it the "ultimate dream". Ingenuity's engineers have since fixed the problem by tweaking the helicopter's flight-control software.

If this flight works, four more flights will take place. The room erupted in cheers and applause.

The flight was pre-programmed into the aircraft because of the 15 minutes it takes for signals to travel from Earth to Mars. Ingenuity was therefore made extremely light and given the power to turn those blades extremely fast - at over 2,500 revolutions per minute. It spent about six seconds moving up to its goal altitude of three meters (ten feet).

© NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Seán Doran Perseverance took a selfie with Ingenuity on April 6. That test involved spinning the helicopter's carbon-fiber blades at full speed while on the ground. Its fuselage, containing all the batteries, heaters and sensors, is the size of a tissue box.

Nasa itself is likening the experiment to the Wright Brothers' feat 117 years ago, paying tribute to that modest but monumental first flight by having affixed a tiny swath of wing fabric from the original Wright flyer under Ingenuity's solar panel.

The helicopter's mission will end at the end of April.

The planned flight was delayed for a week by a technical glitch during a test spin of the aircraft's rotors on April 9.

If all goes according to plan, the helicopter could make as many as five flights in the coming weeks, each one more ambitious than the last. High-altitude helicopters here on Earth could also benefit - imagine choppers easily navigating the Himalayas. The mission is meant to search for evidence of ancient microbial life, analyse Martian rocks, and research the landscape, providing important information for future launches bound for Mars. "Big sister's watching", said Malin Space Science Systems' Elsa Jensen, the rover's lead camera operator.

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