NASA pulls off first Martian liftoff of ‘Ingenuity’ helicopter

NASA pulls off first Martian liftoff of ‘Ingenuity’ helicopter

"We together flew on Mars".

NASA is about to find out what happened. Eastern Time on Monday (0730 GMT Monday), data confirming its outcome is not expected to reach JPL's mission control until around 6:15 a.m. ET on Monday.

"We don't know exactly where Ingenuity will lead us, but today's results indicate the sky - at least on Mars - may not be the limit", said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk.

While the images collected by the helicopter during its flights will not contribute to the main mission, they could help design more robust drones.

The helicopter achieved its planned altitude of 10 feet (3 metres), according to the altimeter data, and hovered for a full 30 seconds, appearing stable.

If this flight works, four more flights will take place.

Ingenuity is due to attempt up to four more flights of increasing difficulty over the next month, venturing higher and farther each time.

This is because of the distance between Earth and Mars - it takes more than 11 minutes to get a radio signal back to Earth. For Ingenuity, the delay is even longer as it must route its communications through the Perseverance rover.

NASA hopes Ingenuity - a technology demonstration separate from Perseverance's primary mission to search for traces of ancient microorganisms - paves the way for aerial surveillance of Mars and other destinations in the solar system, such as Venus or Saturn's moon Titan.

The Perseverance rover captured a "selfie" with Ingenuity before driving to an overlook to watch the helicopter fly. So although it was the dead of night in Pasadena, California, a team of NASA engineers was wide awake, waiting to hear from the helicopter. Throw in the extreme cold and a lengthy radio delay, and you've got a lot that can go wrong.

During the short flight, a black-and-white navigation camera on its belly snapped the photo. The video from the Perseverance rover, which looked on from 5 m (16 ft) away, will be beamed back to Earth soon.

NASA said subsequent flight tests will be scheduled and they will be documented via high-definition cameras on the Perseverance rover. Below that are two carbon fiber rotors that turn in opposite directions. That's necessary because Martian air has just 1% the density of Earth's atmosphere. NASA said that issue has since been resolved. Ingenuity re-did its full-speed spin test on Friday, and the blades performed as they should during flight.

"We can now say we've flown a rotorcraft on another planet", MiMi Aung, NASA's Ingenuity program manager, told the occupants of the flight control room, all masked to protect against the coronavirus.

NASA had been aiming for a 40-second flight, and while details were initially sparse, the craft hit all its targets: spin-up, takeoff, hover, descent and landing.

Scientists cheered the news from around the world, and even from space: "The shadow of greatness, #MarsHelicopter first flight on another world complete!"

This post has been updated with new information.

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