NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter makes history with its first flight on Mars

In an incredible space exploration feat, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter successfully completed its first flight on Mars this week. The historic event took place on Monday, 3:34 a.m. ET, and marked the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.

The small hopper, weighing no more than four pounds, ascended to about 10 feet above the surface of the red planet for about 40 seconds, before safely landing back on the ground, according to the Ingenuity team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Ingenuity arrived on our neighboring planet together with the Perseverance rover back in February in a dramatic and high-definition landing. Its first flight demonstrated technology that could prove critical to the future of space exploration. As space agencies prepare to put humans back on the Moon, and eventually land on Mars, drones will play an increasingly important role in closely assessing the extraterrestrial landscapes.

“We now have our Wright brothers moment,” said MiMi Aung, project manager for Ingenuity. “This is just the first great flight.”

The team is now planning on flying the drone four more times in the coming weeks, to further test its viability in the thin Martian atmosphere — the atmosphere on the red planet is 100 times thinner than that on Earth, making it extremely challenging to get the craft airborne.

As explained by Bloomberg, because it’s mainly made up of carbon dioxide, the thinner atmosphere requires blade rotation speeds of 2,400 rpm for the drone to remain aloft — that’s about five times what’s needed on Earth. Each following test will be a “higher risk” and up to 15 feet above the surface because “we want to stretch and understand the capability of this little vehicle,” said Aung. The longest flight is expected to last no more than 90 seconds.

Image source: NASA

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