NASA has just made aviation history. The agency has confirmed that the Ingenuity Mars helicopter has completed its first test flight, making it the first aircraft to fly to another planet. The machine climbed to an altitude of 10 feet at 3:34 a.m., hovering in place for 30 seconds before touching down on the Martian surface. More details (not to mention better images) are expected soon.
The area will now be known as Wright Brothers Field in honor of the pioneers of powered flight on Earth.
Autonomous flight was no easy task. The gravity of Mars is about a third of that of Earth, and the very thin atmosphere provides only 1% of the pressure at the surface of our planet. The ground rules of flight are different, in other words, and Ingenuity is testing many components for the first time. The helicopter is also powered by solar energy, so the mission crew had to schedule the launch to get the optimum amount of power.
The flight was also a triumph over technical obstacles. NASA originally intended to fly Ingenuity on April 11, but delayed the flight to resolve a software issue with its sequence of commands.
You may not have to wait long for the next flight. NASA is hoping for a second flight on April 22. This should be another modest test, but the administration will decide how best to “develop the flight profile”. Ingenuity can fly up to 160 feet from the Perseverance rover for durations of up to 90 seconds.
The helicopter won’t accomplish much on its own – it’s mostly a proof of concept. This success, however, shows that flight to Mars is possible and opens the door to future planes capable of spotting planets in a way no rover could handle.
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