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ingenuity rover test flight

Nasa’s Ingenuity helicopter makes history with first flight on Mars

Image credit: reuters

Nasa has achieved its first autonomous flight on Mars with its twin-rotor, solar-powered helicopter Ingenuity.

The successful test marks the first time humans have achieved powered, controlled flight on another planet.

The Perseverance rover provided support during flight operations, taking images, collecting environmental data, and hosting the base station that enables the helicopter to communicate with mission controllers on Earth.

With radio communications taking several minutes to reach Mars, its operations were carried out entirely remotely, with Nasa engineers only seeing the results some minutes later.

The 1.8kg helicopter had relatively low requirements for its first flight, ascending to a height of around 3m above Mars surface, hovering there for 30 seconds before descending back to the ground to land on its four legs.

Its rotor blades were successfully unlocked earlier this month, just days after it detached from Perseverance.

Ingenuity is expected to fly up to five times during its 30-day test campaign with more ambitious attempts than this first flight. Ultimately it could ascend to heights as high as 5m while flying for up to 90 seconds.

The original first flight date of April 11 shifted as engineers worked on preflight checks and a solution to a command sequence issue.

“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 in Pasadena.

Before the flight, Aung admitted that Ingenuity’s lack of a self-righting system could mean that a bad landing could spell the end of the mission. An unexpectedly strong wind gust is all it would have taken to spell disaster.

With the Martian atmosphere just 1 per cent the density of the Earth’s, achieving flight is much more difficult. Ingenuity was therefore developed to be especially light in order to boost its chances while being able to rotate its blades over 2,500 times per minute.

It is hoped that the mission will prove the viability of using drones to survey other planets in the future.

Nasa’s Dragonfly mission, set to take place some time in the 2030’s, will see it attempt the same feat on Titan, one of the Moons of Saturn.

A video of the successful test flight and the team’s celebratory reaction to it can be seen below.

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