By Ehmad Jaber
NASA’s Ingenuity rover, which was transported to Mars attached with the Perseverance Rover on February 18, 2021, has successfully taken a flight and sent back its first photos while airborne. It is the first successful flight of a controlled, powered aircraft on another planet.
On Monday, April 19, Ingenuity, a 1.8-kilogram drone helicopter, took off from the surface of Mars and flew up about 3 meters for approx. 30 secs. This monumental moment was streamed live on major platforms, including YouTube.
“We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” said MiMi Aung, who is project manager for Ingenuity at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “We’ve been talking for so long about our ‘Wright Brothers moment’ on Mars, and here it is,” she added, while mentioning the first heavier than an air-controlled flight on Earth in 1903. In fact, Ingenuity also carries a tribute to that famous flight: a postage-stamp-size piece of material from the Wright brothers’ plane tucked beneath its solar panel.
The flight was a major technical challenge, especially in the purview of Mars’s chilling temperatures (nights can drop to -130 °F/-90 °C) and its extremely thin atmosphere (1% the density of Earth).
Similar conditions on earth would be an altitude of about 100,000 feet (30 km) from sea level which is much higher than even the most capable helicopters can fly. This implied that Ingenuity had to be light (1.8 kg), have bigger rotor blades (4 feet) and faster (2,537 rpm) than would be needed to achieve lift-off on Earth’s surface.
While Ingenuity took its first flight, its other companion, Perseverance Rover parked at a safe distance zoomed in its cameras to give scientists a detailed look at the events as they unfold. The flight had originally been scheduled to take place on April 11 but was delayed by software issues (a little bug that was removed by updating few codes of lines from here on earth).
As reported by the BBC, confirmation of the drone’s successful flight was transmitted via satellite which is orbiting Mars and relayed back to Earth. Although the occasion was streamed by NASA as the data was being received in real-time, however in reality, events had already taken place on Mars some 16 mins before. As Mars and Earth are current around 287,470,000 km apart and that’s how much time light/ signals take to reach Earth once transmitted by satellites orbiting Mars. The hovercraft was completely autonomous once given a go-head from here to fly.
The black-and-white lower resolution image as received from Ingenuity was taken with its navigation camera. More color images and hopefully a video with high resolution are expected in the coming days.
— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) April 19, 2021
In days to come, NASA is expected to command the spacecraft to undertake four more flights in the coming days, each lasting up to 90 seconds so as to push the limits of Ingenuity’s technology.
This 19.3” tissue box-sized drone in fact contains no science instruments and is designed just to demonstrate whether or not an aerial perspective can be included in future exploration of Mars.
Today I witnessed history. Now you can too. You’re watching video of the #MarsHelicopter’s first flight – a true “Wright brothers” moment.
Watch it all unfold:
— NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) April 19, 2021
It is designed only to last 30 Martian days (its batteries will die around May 4), after which it will stop performing. Its final resting place will be in the Jezero Crater while NASA will then move on to the main focus of the whole endeavor which is to get the Perseverance rover to study Mars for evidence of life.
“I don’t think I can ever stop watching it…” #MarsHelicopter project manager MiMi Aung talks about how Ingenuity flew just the way they had expected it to fly. See the hi-res video. pic.twitter.com/cBoCzSlpZB
— NASA (@NASA) April 19, 2021
Though the flight may not be particularly high by Earth standards, a monumental achievement of powered aircraft on another planet – with as thin of air and atmosphere as Mars cannot be understated.