Right now, 170 million miles away, on the windy surface of Mars, a four-pound helicopter called Ingenuity rests on four spindly legs after a short, but important, first flight. On Monday, April 19, Ingenuity made its first flight on Mars. In doing so, it became the first human-made machine to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet. The helicopter took off at 3:34 a.m. EDT and hovered about ten feet above the Martian surface for 30 seconds, NASA reports. Read on for more info about the mission and watch a video of the historic flight below.
The plan was for Ingenuity to take off, hover a few feet in the air for about 20 to 30 seconds, then land. To compare, the Wright brothers’ first flight over Kitty Hawk, North Carolina was just 12 seconds long.
Of course, the conditions on Mars are very different from North Carolina. The gravity on Mars is one-third of Earth’s and the atmosphere on Mars is very thin—about 1 percent as dense as our atmosphere. Because of this, Ingenuity’s rotor blades need to be much larger and spin much faster. And, because it’s so far away, it needs to fly by itself, with no real-time input from Earth.
Ingenuity’s flight is a technology demonstration, a proof of concept that carries no science instruments. NASA—along with many of us—just wanted to see if it could fly. Just the fact Ingenuity is millions of miles away, sitting upright on Mars, is impressive. Even before the flight, the “little helicopter that might” had already passed some huge milestones.
First, it survived the launch from Cape Canaveral on July 30, 2020, attached to the belly of the Perseverance rover. Then, it made it through a seven-month journey through space before a “sky crane” landing in the Jezero crater of Mars. Finally, it was unfolded and unlocked from the belly of Perseverance in a six-day process that involved bolt breaking, cable cutting, and finally, a five-inch drop to the surface. Since then, Perseverance has driven away and Ingenuity has survived Martian nighttime temperatures that can drop to minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit. During the days, it’s using its own solar panel to charge.
Now that the first test was successful, NASA has plans for up to five more flights over 30 Martian (or 31 Earth) days.
Ingenuity also has something from Earth that connects it to its place in history. Taped to a cable underneath the helicopter’s solar panel, is a small piece of muslin material that originally covered the wings of the Wright brothers’ aircraft.
Watch Ingenuity Take Flight on Mars
NASA released a video of the historic flight captured by the Perseverance rover. Check it out below:
You wouldn’t believe what I just saw.
— NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) April 19, 2021
There are times when space exploration means small steps for man and giant leaps for humankind, and there are others times when it’s short flights for little helicopters on other planets. After a long journey and plenty of anticipation back on Earth, Ingenuity has finally made history.
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