NASA’s Mars helicopter becomes the first aircraft to fly on another planet

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter nailed a successful debut test flight on Mars, engineers confirmed early Monday morning. The tiny spacecraft lifted itself 10 feet off the Martian surface for 39 seconds, marking the first powered flight on another world. The historic demonstration opens up tantalizing possibilities for a new mode of planetary travel that could send future rotorcraft far beyond the reach of traditional rovers.

The area will now be known as Wright Brothers Field in tribute to the pioneers of powered flight on Earth.

The autonomous flight was no mean feat. Mars’ gravity is about a third of Earth’s, and the very thin atmosphere offers just 1 percent of our planet’s surface-level pressure. The basic rules of flight are different, in other words, and Ingenuity is testing many components for the first time. The helicopter is solar-powered, too, so the mission crew had to time the launch for the optimal amount of energy.

The flight also represented a triumph over technical hurdles. NASA originally intended to fly Ingenuity on April 11th, but delayed the flight to fix a software issue with its command sequence.

Engineers will analyze loads of data from Ingenuity’s first flight to set the parameters for its next four flights in the coming weeks, with the second one scheduled for April 22nd, NASA said. For those tests, Ingenuity will soar higher and travel across its flight zone at increasing speeds though exactly how high and how fast is up for debate. During the press conference, Grip was modest about pushing Ingenuity to fly as high as possible: “probably ten meters, or a little bit more, but not much more than that.” That’s how high Ingenuity’s rangefinder the laser that senses its altitude can detect the ground.

“Like the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, we know that our time to make a difference at Jezero Crater, Mars is not yet over,” Aung told engineers in Mission Control just after flight confirmation. “This is just the first great flight.”

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