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NASA flies helicopter on Mars

Technology demonstrator performs first-ever powered flight on another planet

Ingenuity-Mars-helicopter-Perseverance-NASA Collage showing the Ingenuity helicopter on the surface of Mars. First picture shows Ingenuity before its flight, the second is a screengrab from a video taken by the Perseverance Rover 65 metres away, the third is footage from Ingenuity itself, looking down at its shadow on the surface of another planet | NASA

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has many feats to its name that align themselves to front page worthy news headlines, from the moon landing to the successful foray of a human probe outside of the solar system for the first time. Now, NASA has added another feather to its cap by performing the first-ever powered flight on another planet.

The NASA Perseverance rover has successfully deployed the “Ingenuity” helicopter, which made a brief ascent and descent on the surface of Mars on Monday. You can watch the video of Ingenuity’s 39-second flight below, taken by the Perseverance rover.

In a nod to the first flight by the Wright Brothers, The 1.8kg helicopter even carried a piece of the wing fabric from the original 1903 Wright Flyer.

For every ambitious and risky NASA mission, project managers must prepare two speeches: One in case it succeeds, and another in the event of failure. Project Manager MiMi Aung tore up the latter, as she jubilantly witnessed the aircraft make history. “We've been talking so long about our Wright Brothers moment, and here it is,” she said.

The $85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward. “Each world gets only one first flight,” Aung had said earlier in the month.

“Ingenuity is the latest in a long and storied tradition of NASA projects achieving a space exploration goal once thought impossible,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk. “The X-15 was a pathfinder for the space shuttle. Mars Pathfinder and its Sojourner rover did the same for three generations of Mars rovers. We don’t know exactly where Ingenuity will lead us, but today’s results indicate the sky—at least on Mars—may not be the limit.”

Flight controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California declared success after receiving the data and images via the Perseverance rover, which stood watch more than 200 feet (65 meters) away. Ingenuity hitched a ride to Mars on Perseverance, clinging to the rover's belly upon their arrival in an ancient river delta in February.

Ground controllers had to wait more than three excruciating hours before learning whether the pre-programmed flight had succeeded more than 170 million miles (287 million kilometers) away. Adding to their anxiety: A software error prevented the helicopter from lifting off a week earlier and had engineers scrambling to come up with a fix.

When the news finally came, the operations centre filled with applause, cheers and laughter. Twitter and social media erupted with posts welcoming the good news of human progress, a rarity since the coronavirus.

More followed when the first black and white photo from Ingenuity appeared on the Mission Control screens, showing the helicopter's shadow as it hovered above the surface of Mars.

Next came the stunning colour images of the copter descending back to the surface, taken by Perseverance, the best host little Ingenuity could ever hope for, Aung said while thanking everyone.

The helicopter achieved its planned altitude of 10 feet (3 meters), according to the altimeter data, and hovered for a full 30 seconds, appearing stable. The touchdown looked just as clean. More details were expected in the coming hours and days.

To accomplish all this, the helicopter's twin, counter-rotating rotor blades needed to spin at 2,500 revolutions per minute five times faster than on Earth.

With an atmosphere just 1 per cent the thickness of Earth's, engineers had to build a helicopter light enough with blades spinning fast enough to generate this otherworldy lift. At the same time, it had to be sturdy enough to withstand the Martian wind and extreme cold.

More than six years in the making, Ingenuity is a barebones 19 inches (49 centimeters) tall, a spindly four-legged chopper.

Its fuselage, containing all the batteries, heaters and sensors, is the size of a tissue box. The carbon-fiber, foam-filled rotors are the biggest pieces: Each pair stretches 4 feet (1.2 meters) tip to tip.

The helicopter is topped with a solar panel for recharging the batteries, crucial for its survival during the minus-130 degree Fahrenheit (minus-90 degree-Celsius) Martian nights.

NASA chose a flat, relatively rock-free patch for Ingenuity's airfield, measuring 33 feet by 33 feet (10 meters by 10 meters). It turned out to be less than 100 feet (30 meters) from the original landing site in Jezero Crater.

The helicopter was released from the rover onto the airfield on April 3. Flight commands were sent Sunday, after controllers sent up a software correction for the rotor blade spin-up.

Following Monday's success, NASA named the Martian airfield Wright Brothers Field. While these two iconic moments in aviation history may be separated by time and 173 million miles of space, they now will forever be linked," NASA's science missions chief Thomas Zurbuchen announced.

Up to five helicopter flights are planned, each one increasingly ambitious. If successful, the demo could lead the way to a fleet of Martian drones in decades to come, providing aerial views, transporting packages and serving as scouts for astronauts. High-altitude helicopters here on Earth could also benefit choppers easily navigating the Himalayas

"This gives us amazing hope for all of humanity," Zurbuchen tweeted. Indeed, JPL's mantra, Dare Mighty Things, was printed on a wall of the control room.

Ingenuity's team has until the beginning of May to complete the test flights. That's because the rover needs to get on with its main mission: collecting rock samples that could hold evidence of past Martian life, for return to Earth a decade from now.

Until then, Perseverance will keep watch over Ingenuity. Flight engineers affectionately call them Percy and Ginny. Big sister's watching, said Malin Space Science Systems' Elsa Jensen, the rover's lead camera operator.

With inputs from PTI