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NASA’s Mars helicopter makes its first flight, the first one for another planet.



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On Monday, NASA’s experimental helicopter Ingenuity flew into the thin air above Mars’ dusty red surface, making it the first powered flight by an aeroplane on another earth.

The victory was heralded as a Wright Brothers moment. The mini 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) copter also bore a scrap of wing fabric from the Wright Flyer, which made similar history in 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

It was a short jump — 39 seconds and 10 foot (3 metres) — but it hit all the big landmarks.

“We’ve been dreaming about our Wright Brothers moment for so long, and here it is,” project manager MiMi Aung said, virtual hugging her emotionally isolated colleagues in the control room as well as those at home due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After collecting data and photographs from the Perseverance rover, flight controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California claimed victory. Ingenuity rode Perseverance to Mars, sticking to the rover’s belly as it landed in an ancient river delta in February.

The $85 million helicopter demonstration was regarded as high risk, but high reward.

Scientists cheered the news from all around the world, including space.

“We now have a whole new way to discover the alien terrain in our solar system,” Nottingham Trent University astronomer Daniel Brown said from England.

This first test flight, with more to come by Ingenuity, holds a lot of hope, according to Brown. Future helicopters could act as extraterrestrial scouts for rovers and, potentially, astronauts in difficult, risky environments.

Ground controllers had to wait more than three agonising hours to hear if the preprogrammed flight had succeeded over 170 million miles (287 million kilometres). The first attempt had been postponed for a week due to a technical glitch.

As the news was actually delivered, the operations room erupted in cheering, shouts, and laughter. More came after the first black and white shot from Ingenuity, which showed the helicopter’s shadow hovering over the surface of Mars.

“In the shadow of greatness, the first flight of the #MarsHelicopter on another planet has been completed!” Victor Glover, a NASA astronaut, tweeted from the International Space Station.

Following that was a beautiful colour video of the copter’s clean landing, captured by Perseverance, who Aung described as “the greatest host little Ingenuity could ever wish for.”

The helicopter hovered for 30 seconds at its planned altitude of 10 feet (3 metres) and flew for 39 seconds, more than three times longer than the Wright Flyer’s first successful flight, which lasted just 12 seconds on December 17, 1903.

All of this needed the helicopter’s twin, counter-rotating rotor blades to rotate at 2,500 revolutions per minute — five times faster than on Earth. Engineers had to create a helicopter small enough — and blades rotating quickly enough — to generate this otherworldly lift with an atmosphere just 1% the thickness of Earth’s.

Ingenuity, a spindly four-legged chopper that took more than six years to build, stands just 19 inches (49 centimetres) tall. Its fuselage, which houses all of the motors, heaters, and sensors, is around the size of a tissue box. The largest components are the carbon-fiber, foam-filled rotors: Each pair is 4 feet (1.2 metres) long from tip to tip.

Ingenuity has to be strong enough to survive the Martian wind, and it is topped with a solar panel for charging the batteries, which is important for enduring the minus-130 degree Fahrenheit (minus-90 degree Celsius) Martian nights.

For Ingenuity’s airfield, NASA chose a flat, relatively rock-free area. Following the progress on Monday, NASA named the Martian airfield after the Wright brothers.

“While these two iconic moments of aviation history could have been separated by time and 173 million miles of space, they are now inextricably linked,” NASA’s science missions leader Thomas Zurbuchen said.

From the moment it debuted with Perseverance last July, the little chopper with a big job drew praise. Over the weekend, Arnold Schwarzenegger joined in the fun, cheering for Ingenuity. In a tweeted video, he yelled, “Get to the chopper!” a line from his 1987 sci-fi film “Predator.”

Up to five more ambitious flights are expected, and they could pave the way for a fleet of Martian drones to provide aerial views, transport packages, and serve as lookouts for human crews in the coming decades. On Earth, the technology will enable helicopters to scale new heights, allowing them to navigate the Himalayas more easily.

The Ingenuity team has until the beginning of May to finish the test flights so that the rover can focus on its main mission: gathering rock samples that may provide traces of past Martian existence for return to Earth a decade later.

The squad intends to push the helicopter to its limits, potentially wrecking it and causing it to sit in place indefinitely after sending data back home.

Perseverance will keep an eye on Ingenuity until then. Percy and Ginny are nicknames given to flight engineers.

“Big sister is watching,” said Elsa Jensen of Malin Space Science Systems, the rover’s lead camera operator.

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