NASA helicopter performs takeoff, landing on Mars

Published April 20, 2021
(Top) The shadow of NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity is seen during its first flight on the planet on Monday. 
(Bottom) The team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in southern California react after Ingenuity’s flight on 
the planet.—Reuters
(Top) The shadow of NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity is seen during its first flight on the planet on Monday. (Bottom) The team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in southern California react after Ingenuity’s flight on the planet.—Reuters

LOS ANGELES: NASA’s miniature robot helicopter Ingenuity performed a successful takeoff and landing on Mars early on Monday, achieving the first powered, controlled flight by an aircraft over the surface of another planet, the US space agency said.

The twin-rotor whirligig’s debut on the Red Planet marked a 21st-century Wright Brothers moment for NASA, which said success could pave the way for new modes of exploration on Mars and other destinations in the solar system, such as Venus and Saturn’s moon Titan.

Mission managers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles burst into applause and cheers as engineering data beamed back from Mars confirmed that the 4-pound (1.8-kg) solar-powered helicopter had performed its maiden 39-second flight as planned three hours earlier.

Achievement likened to Wright Brothers’ first controlled flight

Altimeter readings from the rotorcraft showed that it became airborne at 3:34am EDT (0734 GMT), climbed as programmed to a height of 10 feet (3 meters), then hovered steadily in place over the Martian surface for half a minute before touching back down safely on its four legs, NASA said.

During NASA’s presentation of the event livestreamed from JPL headquarters, mission managers also displayed its first images from the flight.

A black-and-white photo taken by a downward-pointing onboard camera while the helicopter was aloft showed the distinct shadow cast by Ingenuity in the Martian sunlight onto the ground just below it.

And a snippet of color video footage captured by a separate camera mounted on the NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance, parked about 200 feet away, showed the helicopter in flight against the orange-colored landscape surrounding it.

“We can now say that human beings have flown an aircraft on another planet,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at JPL.

Despite the flight’s brevity, it marked a historic feat in interplanetary aviation, taking place on an “air field” 173 million miles from Earth on the floor of a vast Martian basin called Jezero Crater.

(Top) The shadow of NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity is seen during its first flight on the planet on Monday. (Bottom) The team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in southern California react after Ingenuity’s flight on the planet.—Reuters
(Top) The shadow of NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity is seen during its first flight on the planet on Monday. (Bottom) The team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in southern California react after Ingenuity’s flight on the planet.—Reuters

NASA likened the achievement to the Wright Brothers’ first controlled flight of their motor-driven airplane near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December 1903 - a takeoff and landing that covered just 120 feet (37 meters) in 12 seconds.

Paying tribute to that modest but monumental first flight, NASA engineers affixed a tiny swath of wing fabric from the original Wright flyer under Ingenuity’s solar panel before sending it on its way to Mars.

“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 - at least on Mars - may not be the limit.” The tiny rotorcraft was carried to the Red Planet strapped to the belly of the Mars rover Perseverance, a six-wheeled astrobiology lab that touched down in Jezero Crater on Feb 18 after a nearly seven-month journey through space.

Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2021

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