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While it was only in the air for less than a minute, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has gone down in history as the first aircraft to achieve powered flight on Mars.

At command headquarters, the NASA team watched as the first data, which included a grainy black-and-white image, confirmed the mission’s success.

An picture sent back to Earth from the helicopter showed the surface of Mars with a shadow cast by the aircraft.

Minutes later, video footage taken from the Perseverance rover’s vantage point 65 meters away showed the successful flight, which reached a height of about 3 meters.

“We can confirm it has made its first flight on Mars,” Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung said. 

“We’ve been talking for so long about our Wright brothers moment, and here it is.”

As the data from the spacecraft returns to Earth, more high-resolution images are anticipated in the coming days.

NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars in February, received a last-minute addition in the form of the Ingenuity helicopter.

The helicopter had a single mission: to prove it could fly. It was designed over three years at a cost of $US80 million ($105 million) using high-tech and off-the-shelf components.

Unlike drones on Earth, Ingenuity is fully self-contained, following a series of preprogrammed instructions and navigating with the aid of its cameras and sensors.

“Ingenuity is the latest in a long and storied tradition of NASA projects achieving a space exploration goal once thought impossible,” acting NASA chief Steve Jurczyk said in a statement.

“Today’s results indicate the sky — a least on Mars — may not be the limit.”

After a software glitch delayed the first flight by a week, the helicopter was given the all go to fly late on Monday afternoon AEST. 

The first flight was a quick rise, hover for around 30 seconds, turn, and return to its landing spot, which went off without a hitch.

Ingenuity will fly up to four more times over the next two weeks, about every three Martian days.

If everything goes according to plan, each flight will become more ambitious.

The helicopter can fly up to 5 meters above the ground and travel up to 15 meters forward and back to the landing area on the next two flights.

The paths for flight four and five will depend upon these earlier flights.

“We are really going to push the limits of this rotorcraft,” Ms Aung said.

The helicopter’s mission will end at the end of April.

As the helicopter falls silent, the rover will drive away and get ready to start the main mission: to hunt for evidence of past life on Mars.

Ingenuity Will Transform Drones on Mars – and Earth

Although the images captured by the helicopter during its flights will not help with the main goal, they will aid in the development of more durable drones.

Drones could revolutionize Mars exploration, according to David Flannery of the Queensland University of Technology, who is working on NASA’s Perseverance project.

“We’ll be able to do a lot more science, cover a lot more ground and use much cheaper parts,” he said.

According to Dr. Flannery, who has also worked on a variety of NASA projects developing robot and drone technology, Ingenuity’s efficient flight would have consequences for the drone revolution on Earth.

“Often these things that happen in space give you a bit of a preview to how things will pan out on Earth in the not too distant future,” he said.

“There are various components that need to be understood like: How do these things navigate? How do they decide how to allocate resources? How do they communicate with each other?”

“These problems are being solved by research groups who are working at the cutting edge.”

Source: ABC World News

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