NASA’s Ingenuity – the first helicopter on Mars – has taken its maiden flight today, and what a glorious few seconds it was. It took place in the vast Martian basin named the Jezero Crater, where the Perseverance lander resides having landed there on 18 February. After several delays due to software issues, NASA finally conducted the first ‘powered, controlled flight on another planet.’ It also sent back images and videos using its navigation camera, which autonomously tracks the ground during flights. These images were received a few hours after Ingenuity took its first flight, due to a delay in the satellites.
This is quite normal, as all communication between the two planets goes through satellites. Mars is 289.29 million kilometres away from Earth and has a delay of about 3-22 minutes, as the communication signals travel at the speed of light to reach the end.
A short clip sent back by the Perseverance rover showed the 1.8 kg chopper grounded at first, hovering three metres above the Martian surface for almost 40 seconds, then touching down again.
NASA had hoped to make the helicopter rise five metres and then move laterally. The team handling the helicopter said that after trying to find solutions for the software issue, this flight was an attempt to see if their tinkering had paid off. In a NASA blog, lead engineer MiMi Aung said while they did everything they could to make it a success, they also knew they might have to take another shot at the flight.
“In engineering, there is always uncertainty, but this is what makes working on advanced technology so exciting and rewarding,” Aung wrote. “We get to try things others have only dreamed of.”
“Altimeter data confirms that Ingenuity has performed its first flight – the first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet,” announced an engineer in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the control room cheered.
“We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet!” said Aung to her team. “We’ve been talking so long about our Wright brothers moment on Mars, and here it is.”
Orville and Wilbur Wright were two brothers who are credited for inventing, building, and flying the world’s first successful motor-operated airplane. The Wright brothers’ first controlled flight took place in North Carolina, in 1903, and they flew a distance of 37 metres in 12 seconds. While the distance was modest, it was still a huge step in the field of aviation.
To pay tribute to the Wright brothers, a piece of fabric from that plane has been tucked inside the Ingenuity helicopter.
Similarly, while Ingenuity did not fly too high, (rising all of three metres), it is still a big accomplishment for NASA. According to Reuters, the flight would’ve been successful only if Ingenuity executed the pre-programmed flight instructions using an autonomous pilot and navigation system, which, by the looks of it, it did.
NASA said that if the flight was a success, it would conduct another flight four days later. It plans as many as five altogether, each successively more difficult, over the course of a month.