A small helicopter called “Ingenuity” made history on Monday when it lifted off from the Martian landscape and hovered briefly in the air above the planet. The flight of the NASA helicopter represented the first time in history that any machine from Earth had flown in another world.
Engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California cheered in jubilation as the image beamed back to Earth by the helicopter itself showed its own shadow projected onto the surface of the red planet during its short flight.
The flight was for a distance of only ten feet, where it hovered for a full thirty seconds and then descended, making a soft landing. While in flight, its onboard cameras captured images, assisting its navigational systems to make any adjustments needed.
NASA helicopter was attached to “Perseverance” module
The Perseverance, its “mother” module, which landed on Mars in February, also took footage of the momentous flight from 200 feet away.
After the first exploratory vessel from Earth landed on Mars in 1976 as part of its Voyager/Viking programs, NASA has chocked up yet another first regarding exploration of the planet with the flight of the helicopter today.
However, even after its string of successes, Monday’s flight was considered high-risk for NASA, which engages in colossal projects rather than the smaller, more targeted ones that firms such as SpaceX involves itself in.
NASA tested the rotors on April 8, ensuring that they could wiggle a bit before the machine was fired up for its first test flight today. The video of the flight was captured by the Perseverance Rover, which landed on Mars February 18, 2021 in its Jezero Crater.
Four flights scheduled for the “Ingenuity”
The Perseverance took its first “selfie” with Ingenuity on April 6 in the lead to the flight.
NASA has stated that there may be up to four more flights above Mars — with the first three being just tests of the copter’s abilities. The fourth is planned to be for a distance of 160 feet before the helicopter is supposed to return back to its launch site.
Depending on how well the first flights go, the later expeditions could go further, according to NASA, but officials refused to speculate just how much longer they could operate.
NASA plans to finalize all testing with the helicopter within thirty Martian days, or sols, in order that the Perseverance rover and start the main thrust of its mission, which cost as much as $2.7 billion.
Leaving Ingenuity behind in its launching place, Perseverance will leave the crater and move toward a river delta along the rim of the crater, looking for sediments of that may have accumulated there as they do in earthly riverine systems.
Search for signs of life on Mars will continue
Ultimately, NASA hopes to find any evidence of life forms that may once have flourished there in the water which once flowed through its banks.
The Ingenuity was not essential to the exploration of the river delta, the main purpose of the expedition, but its successful flight showed that, remarkably, its rotors would provide lift, even in the much less dense atmosphere of Mars.
With a density of only 1/100th that of the Earth’s atmosphere, it was not known if the Martian air would support the function of a copter’s rotors, which allow it to rise.
At a cool $85 million, it was an add-on project by NASA — but now the price tags seems a bit justified, as the flight in the red-tinged air of the Red planet took place without a hitch.
Voyager, Viking, Pathfinder led the way for latest Mars expedition
Part of what made it possible was the fact that the lesser gravity of Mars — one third of that on Earth — helped the copter to rise into the air. In reality, this would be equivalent to a helicopter operating at an Earth altitude of 100,000 feet.
Naturally, no helicopter has ever operated that far above the Earth’s surface — when even mountaintop rescues are extremely difficult in the rarified air of the high Alps or on the slopes of Mt. Everest.
This is two times the typical altitude reached by commercial jetliners on long-haul routes.
Monday’s feat for Ingenuity was just another in a long string of victories over the challenges posed by the red planet, including the 1997 Pathfinder mission, which included the wheeled robot called Sojourner. Showing images of the Martian landscape as it drove along, the tiny rover made its way into the hearts of fans all over the world as it went on its many intrepid treks around and over boulders and crater edges.
Sojourner was the first of all the Martian rovers, which now number four. But in many ways it was the groundbreaker for NASA in its pushing of the envelope in its quest to try out new technologies on Mars.
The helicopter hovering over the surface of the planet may also serve as a precursor to other copters which may be dispatched to Titan, a satellite of Saturn, where NASA hopes to send a nuclear-powered “quadcopter” in the future.