NASA's Ingenuity helicopter aces first test flight in Martian environment
Ever since NASA successfully unsheathed the Ingenuity helicopter that accompanied its Perseverance rover to Mars, anticipation had been building for the helicopter's first flight. Today, the rotorcraft successfully completed its first test flight on the red planet. This is a historic achievement for humankind as it is the first successful powered flight on another planet.
Ingenuity helicopter accompanied Perseverance to Mars as a technology demonstration
For the uninitiated, Ingenuity is a drone that was strapped to the underbelly of the Perseverance rover that NASA recently sent to Mars. Ingenuity is one of two technology demonstrations aboard the rover. Interestingly, it even carries a small piece of fabric from the wings of Flyer 1, the Wright Brothers' aircraft that made its first flight on Earth over 117 years ago.
Helicopter's minute-long flight was a historic moment for all humankind
The historic flight saw Ingenuity attain an altitude of three meters, hover, swivel, and then land. Ingenuity's project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), MiMi Aung delightedly announced, "We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet." "We've been talking for so long about our Wright Brothers moment on Mars, and here it is," she added.
Mars' extremely thin environment makes flight challenging
Ingenuity's successful test flight is a noteworthy accomplishment considering the technical challenges posed by conditions on Mars. The Martian atmosphere is just one percent as dense as the Earth's atmosphere. This means that the craft's rotors had to spin much faster to gain lift and fly. This test flight greenlights further flights for the $85 million-worth drone, as outlined by its 30-day mission plan.
Ingenuity's historic flight was recorded by onboard cameras, Perseverance rover
NASA prides itself for having built Ingenuity using many off-the-shelf components. The first flight was recorded by Perseverance rover as well as by the drone's onboard cameras. The flight was initially slated for April 11 but was delayed due to a problem with the rotors discovered on April 9. In the coming days, NASA will attempt another four flights, taking Ingenuity farther each time.
Successful flight cements the role of drones in planetary exploration
However, NASA did not quantify how much farther Ingenuity would fly in each subsequent flight. The successful test flight also ignites fresh hope that unmanned drones might be able to scout ahead for rovers and eventually assist with manned missions on Mars and other planets. NASA has already approved a helicopter mission called Dragonfly to Titan, one of Saturn's moons in the 2030s.