A tiny helicopter built by Nasa has flown on Mars as part of the US space agency’s first attempt at a powered, controlled flight on another world.
The Ingenuity helicopter took to the Martian skies this morning as part of a technology demonstration – a project that aims to test the capability for the first time.
However, Nasa didn’t learn of the mission’s success until several hours later due to the time lag transferring data from Mars to Earth.
The tiny ‘copter took off from the ground and hovered in the air at around 10 feet (three metres) for about 20 to 30 seconds before descending and touching back down on the Martian surface.
Ingenuity uses two rotors that spin in opposite directions to lift the drone off the ground. This was the first of what Nasa hopes will be several flights on Mars.
Each additional experimental flight will involve travelling further distances and increasing altitudes. It will aim for up to five test flights within a 30 Martian-day (31 Earth-day) demonstration window.
Ingenuity faces the challenge of flying in the Martian atmosphere, which is about 100 times thinner than Earth’s.
About 50cm tall, the helicopter weighs 1.8kg on Earth, but is a mere 0.68kg on Mars because of the red planet’s lower gravity – roughly one third of our own.
As it is a technology demonstration, the helicopter does not have any scientific instruments onboard. However, it does have a couple of grams of fabric from the Wright brothers’ first plane – called the Flyer – attached to it as a good luck charm.
‘Ingenuity is a technology experiment. As such, our plan is to push the envelope and learn by doing. We take risks that other missions cannot, weighing each step carefully,’ said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
‘We’ll be learning all along the way, and it will be the ultimate reward for our team to be able to add another dimension to the way we explore other worlds in the future.’
According to Nasa, one of Ingenuity’s key objectives is to survive the ‘bone-chilling temperatures’ of the red planet, with ‘nights as cold as minus 90C’.
Ingenuity arrived at the Jezero Crater on February 18 after an eight-month journey spanning nearly 300 million miles, tucked inside the belly of Nasa’s Perseverance rover.
It is designed to be mostly autonomous so Nasa will not be able to control the helicopter remotely.
This is because of the distance between Earth and Mars – it takes more than 11 minutes to get a radio signal back to Earth
Nasa said it will not be able to look at engineering data or images from each flight until well after the flight takes place.
Bob Balaram, Mars Helicopter chief engineer at JPL, said: ‘Every step we have taken since this journey began six years ago has been uncharted territory in the history of aircraft.’