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AP/PA Images

NASA successfully completes first-ever controlled helicopter flight on another planet

The helicopter beamed images of the feat back to Earth this morning.

LAST UPDATE | 19 Apr 2021

NASA HAS MADE history after successfully completing the first powered, controlled flight 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 helicopter travelled to Mars attached to the underside of the rover Perseverance, which touched down on the planet on 18 February on a mission to search for signs of extraterrestrial life.

The space agency had originally planned the flight for 11 April but postponed it over a software issue that was identified during a planned high-speed test of the aircraft’s rotors.

“Each world gets only one first flight,” MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity project manager, said before the first attempt.

The first powered flight on Earth was achieved by the Wright brothers in 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. A piece of fabric from that plane has been tucked inside Ingenuity in honor of that feat.

Ingenuity’s goal, by contrast, is to demonstrate its technology works, and it won’t contribute to Perseverance’s science goals.

But it is hoped that Ingenuity can pave the way for future flyers that revolutionise our exploration of celestial bodies because they can reach areas that rovers can’t go, and travel much faster.

The timing of the helicopter flight was chosen with the weather on Mars in mind. Wind is the big unknown and could jeopardise the mission.

The flight was challenging because the air on Mars is so thin – less than 1% of the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere.

That makes it much harder to achieve lift, even though it was partly aided by a gravitational pull that is a third of Earth’s.

The helicopter rose for about six seconds, hovered and rotated for about 30 seconds, then descended again.

The flight was pre-programmed into the aircraft because of the 15 minutes it takes for signals to travel from Earth to Mars.

Ingenuity itself analysed its position with respect to the Martian surface.

After the flight, Ingenuity sent Perseverance technical data on what it has done, and that information was transmitted back to Earth, where the feat was confirmed.

The data included a black and white photo of the Martian surface that Ingenuity was programmed to snap while flying.

Later, once its batteries have charged up again, Ingenuity will transmit another photo – in colour, of the Martian horizon, taken with a different camera.

But the most spectacular images are supposed to come from the rover Perseverance, which will film the flight from a few meters away.

Shortly after this filming, six videos of 2.5 seconds each will be sent to Earth. NASA hopes at least one of them will show the helicopter in flight.

The entire video will be sent over the following few days.

“There will be surprises, and you will be learning about them right at the same time that we will. So let’s all get the popcorn,” said Elsa Jensen, who oversees the cameras on the rover.

 © AFP 2021 

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