The American space agency has succeeded in flying a small helicopter on Mars.
A drone called Ingenuity floated in the air in less than a minute, but Nasa is celebrating the first powered and controlled flight of an aircraft in another world.
The confirmation was made via the Martian moon, which relays Chopper’s data to Earth.
Space agencies are promising even more adventurous flights in the future.
As engineers try to test the limits of technology, their ingenuity is higher and they are commanded to fly further.
MiMi Aung, Project Manager at Ingenuity at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, said:
“We’ve been talking about the Wright brothers’ moment on Mars for a long time, and it’s here.”
This is a reference to Wilbur and Orville Wright, who made the first powered and controlled aircraft flight on Earth in 1903.
Ingenuity carries even a small sample of fabric from one of the wings of Flyer 1, an aircraft that made its historic flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina over 117 years ago.
There was cheers at the JPL Control Center when the first photo of the flight returned to Earth. In the background, I could hear Dr. Aung saying, “It’s real!”
To applaud from her colleague, Mimi Aung tore her contingency speech-because it was used if the attempt was unsuccessful.
In the demonstration, a Martian helicopter (called Ingenuity) climbed to about 3m, hovering, turning, and landing.
Floating in the air on the red planet is not easy. The atmosphere is very thin, only 1% of the density of the earth here. This ensures that the blades of a rotorcraft rarely bite for lift.
Despite the help from Mars’ low gravity, it still takes a lot of work to get up from the ground.
This made the ingenuity very light and gave them the power to rotate these blades at very high speeds. In this particular flight, it was over 2,500 rpm.
Flight control must be autonomous. The distance to Mars (currently just under 300 million kilometers) means that it takes a few minutes to pass through the space where the radio signal intervenes. Flying with a joystick is out of the question.
Ingenuity was brought to Mars on the belly of Nasa’s Perseverance Rover, which landed on the Red Planet in February.
After that, patience went to the “runway” about 20m away from the landing point of the Jezero crater on Mars, dropped the ingenuity to the ground, and took a selfie of the two.
Successful outing of the maiden means that four more flights will be attempted in the next few days, each carrying a helicopter farther.
I hope this first demonstration can ultimately change the way we explore some distant worlds.
Drones could be used to scout future rover, and even astronauts who eventually arrived on Mars.
Nasa has already approved a helicopter mission to Saturn’s moon Titan. As the mission is known, dragonflies should arrive at Titan in the mid-2030s.