NASA successfully flew a small helicopter on Mars.
The drone, called Ingenuity, was airborne for less than a minute, but Nasa is celebrating what represents the first powered, controlled flight by an aircraft on another world.
Confirmation came via a satellite at Mars which relayed the chopper’s data back to Earth.
The space agency is promising more adventurous flights in the days ahead.
Ingenuity will be commanded to fly higher and further as engineers seek to test the limits of the technology.
The rotorcraft was carried to Mars in the belly of Nasa’s Perseverance Rover, which touched down in Jezero Crater on the Red Planet in February.
“We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” said a delighted MiMi Aung, project manager for Ingenuity at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
“We’ve been talking for so long about our ‘Wright Brothers moment’ on Mars, and here it is.”
This is a reference to Wilbur and Orville Wright who conducted the first powered, controlled aircraft flight here on Earth in 1903.
Ingenuity even carries a small swatch of fabric from one of the wings of Flyer 1, the aircraft that made that historic flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, more than 117 years ago.
The demonstration saw the Mars-copter rise to just over 3m, hover, swivel 96 degrees, hover some more, and then set down. In all, it managed almost 40 seconds of flight, from take-off to landing.
Getting airborne on the Red Planet is not easy. The atmosphere is very thin, just 1% of the density here at Earth. This gives the blades on a rotorcraft very little to bite into to gain lift.
There’s help from the lower gravity at Mars, but still – it takes a lot of work to get up off the ground.
Ingenuity was therefore made extremely light and given the power to turn those blades extremely fast, at over 2,500 revolutions per minute for this particular flight.
Control was autonomous because the distance to Mars from Earth means radio signals take minutes to traverse the intervening space. Flying by joystick is simply out of the question.
Ingenuity has two cameras onboard. A black-and-white camera that points down to the ground, which is used for navigation, and a high-resolution colour camera that looks out to the horizon.
Sample navigation images sent back to Earth revealed the helicopter’s shadow on the floor of the crater as it came back into land.
The Perseverance rover was watching and snapping away from a distance of 65m.
Nasa has announced that the “airstrip” in Jezero where Perseverance dropped off Ingenuity for its demonstration will henceforth be known as the “Wright Brothers Field”.
— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) April 19, 2021