A helicopter rose from the sandy red surface of Mars into the planet’s atmosphere on April 19th 2021, making Ingenuity NASA’s first powered flight on another planet.
This triumph was hailed as another Wright Brothers moment. The helicopter, which only weighed 4 pounds i.e., 1.8 Kilograms is named Ingenuity. It has fabric from the Wright brother’s original plane.
“Altimeter data confirms that Ingenuity has performed its first flight, the first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet,” said the helicopter’s chief pilot Havard Grip. It was remotely operated from Earth.
Flight controllers in California confirmed Ingenuity’s ascent but noticed that initially there was a slight hop, after receiving data via the Perseverance rover, which stood watch more than 200 feet (65 meters) away.
This experiment cost NASA a whopping $85 million and was considered high risk, yet the results were highly rewarding.
MiMi Aung, this mission’s project manager for the Ingenuity mission, and her team had to wait more than three hours before learning whether the pre-programmed flight worked successfully.
Applause erupted in the operations centre in California, when the first black and white photo from Ingenuity appeared on the screens, showing its shadow as it soared above the surface of Mars, followed by colour images of the descent back to the Mars surface, which was taken by Perseverance.
Ingenuity and Perseverance rover
To accomplish the 40-second flight, the helicopter’s twin, counter-rotating rotor blades spun at 2,500 revolutions per minute, five times faster than on Earth. With an atmosphere just 1 per cent the thickness of Earth’s, engineers had to build a helicopter light enough with blades spinning relatively faster — to lift the copter with ease. At the same time, it had to be sturdy enough to withstand the wind and extreme cold on Mars.
The helicopter is topped with solar panels for constantly recharging its batteries. They chose an even, and relatively rock-free patch as Ingenuity’s airfield, measuring 10 meters by 10 meters. The helicopter was released onto the airfield by Perseverance rover on April 3rd. Flight commands were sent from Earth on 18th April, after controllers sent a software correction for the rotor blade spin.
This experiment attracted attention from around the world, from the moment it was launched with the Perseverance rover last July. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger took to Twitter rooting for the helicopter with his famous line “Get to the chopper” from the 1987 sci-fi film “Predator.”
Five helicopter flights are planned as a demo, if successful, it could lead the way to a fleet of Martian drones years to come – for collection samples, covering and transmitting more aerial view, transporting and serving as guides for the astronauts.
Ingenuity’s team will continue these tests until the beginning of May. After which the rover needs to work on its main mission, which is collecting rock samples from Mars’ surface and could give us any evidence that supports the existence of life on Mars.
This “little” experiment was keenly followed by enthusiasts all over the world and is believed that it can pave a way for more advancements in space exploration.
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