Earlier today, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter became the first aircraft to make a controlled flight on another planet. The solar-powered helicopter became airborne at 3:34 AM (ET) which was at a local time on Mars that was determined to likely feature optimal energy and flight conditions. Data indicates Ingenuity climbed to its prescribed altitude of 10 feet and maintained a stable hover for 30 seconds. It then descended and touched back down on the surface of Mars after logging a total of 39.1 seconds of flight. This was an important test for the helicopter which was full of unknowns as Mars has an extremely thin atmosphere and significantly lower gravity than Earth.
This Mars mission began in late July 2020 with an Atlas V rocket launch at Cape Canaveral Space Station in Florida. More than six months later, the advanced rover named Perseverance and the helicopter named Ingenuity landed successfully on Mars and will spend the next couple of years searching for ancient life and exploring the planet’s surface.
Ingenuity which has now become the first rotorcraft used beyond Earth is only 19 inches tall and weighs just under 4 pounds. It had been tucked up in the belly of Perseverance since the summer of 2020. Ingenuity’s initial flight demonstration was autonomous – piloted by onboard guidance, navigation, and control systems running algorithms developed by the team at JPL. Because data must be sent to and returned from the Red Planet over hundreds of millions of miles using orbiting satellites and NASA’s Deep Space Network, Ingenuity cannot be flown with a joystick, and its flight was not observable from Earth in real time. To make the brief first flight, Ingenuity had to overcome Mars’s super-thin atmosphere which makes it more difficult for the helicopters’ blades, spinning at about 2,500 revolutions per minute, to generate lift. The Mars atmosphere is made up mostly of carbon dioxide with only 1% of the pressure at the surface compared to our planet and it has a significantly lower gravity – one-third that of Earth’s. Parked about 211 feet during Ingenuity’s historic first flight, the Perseverance rover not only acted as a communications relay between the helicopter and Earth, but also chronicled the flight operations with its cameras. The pictures from the rover imagers will provide additional data on the helicopter’s flight.
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