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Mars ‘Ingenuity’ helicopter makes historic test flight

  • April 19, 2021

The US space agency, NASA, on Monday successfully tested a small helicopter on Mars, with flight data traveling across the “deep space network” and arriving at mission control several hours after the test was completed. 

The “Ingenuity” executed a pre-programmed flight using an auto-pilot mechanism and a navigation system. The flight maneuver needed to be pre-programmed, as it takes 15 minutes for signals to travel from Earth to Mars. 

The 1.8 kilogram (4 pound) craft was able to lift off, hover in place above the surface and then land gently. The test was carried out in a vast Martian basin called Jezero Crater.

In a live broadcast of the data arriving, NASA scientists applauded as images arrived showing the Ingenuity hovering above the Martian surface. 

Images of the flight were captured by the Perseverance rover, which was parked some 76 meters from the flight zone. Cameras on Ingenuity also took several photos of the Martian surface. All of the flight data was transmitted back to Earth by Perseverance. 

NASA hopes more images and a more complete video of the flight will arrive to Earth over the course of several days. 

What is Ingenuity’s mission?

Ingenuity traveled to the red planet strapped to the Perseverance rover, which touched down on February 18 to begin a mission searching for signs of life on Mars. 

For now, the goal of Ingenuity is to demonstrate its flight technology works, which could pave the way for faster exploration of extraterrestrial surfaces. 

The thin air on Mars, with less than 1% of Earth’s atmospheric pressure, also makes it harder to achieve lift, although this is partially offset by a weaker gravitational pull. 

NASA engineers had also been particularly concerned about wind gusts during the landing, as the helicopter cannot prop itself up if a gust of wind, or a botched maneuver, knocks it over. 

What next for Ingenuity? 

After the first successful flight, Ingenuity will carry out several more lengthier flights in the coming weeks, with brakes in between to recharge batteries. 

The next flight should take place within the next four days. Each test will be successively more difficult. 

For example, NASA aims to have the craft rise five meters and then move laterally.

Ingenuity’s “lifetime will be determined by how well it lands” each time, said said Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung.

“Once we get to the fourth and fifth flight, we’ll have fun,” she said. “We are going to take very bold flights and take high risk.”

NASA had compared Monday’s test flight to the first powered flight of an airplane, achieved in 1903 by the Wright brothers in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The Ingenuity is carrying a small piece of fabric from the Kitty Hawk plane, in honor of the first flight on Earth. 

“Each world gets only one first flight,” said Aung ahead of the first attempt. 

wmr/rt (AFP, Reuters)

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