NASA has made history Monday with its Ingenuity Mars helicopter completing the first-ever powered, controlled flight on another planet.
The helicopter hovered for 30 seconds at its planned altitude of 10 feet, and spent 39 seconds airborne, more than three times longer than the first successful flight of the Wright Flyer that made similar history at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903. The mini 4-pound copter even carried a bit of wing fabric from the Wright Flyer.
“Ingenuity has performed its first flight — the first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet!” flight control was heard saying in audio broadcast Monday morning by NASA.
NASA had been aiming for a 40-second flight and the craft hit all its targets: spin-up, takeoff, hover, descent and landing.
Scientists cheered the news from around the world and even from space.
“A whole new way to explore the alien terrain in our solar system is now at our disposal,” Nottingham Trent University astronomer Daniel Brown said from England.
“The shadow of greatness, #MarsHelicopter first flight on another world complete!” NASA astronaut Victor Glover tweeted from the International Space Station.
To achieve the flight, 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% 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.
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More than six years in the making, Ingenuity is a barebones 1.6 feet 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 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 Martian nights.
NASA chose a flat, relatively rock-free patch for Ingenuity’s airfield, measuring 33 feet by 33 feet.
It turned out to be less than 100 feet 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.