NASA’s Mars helicopter has just completed its first flight

Ingenuity clung to the Perseverance rover, NASA’s small helicopter, and has been the centerpiece of space news for a few days. While on Earth, Thomas Pesquet is packing his bags before a new mission inside the ISS (it will take off from Cape Canaveral this Thursday), millions of kilometers away, on Mars. Ingenuity has just made its first flight over the red planet.

That Monday morning, the tension in the NASA command center in Houston was at its peak. The mission’s chances of success were slim for the small drone and it had to find its way through the light Martian atmosphere (1% the density of the Earth’s atmosphere) in order to take off successfully.

This difference in air density was the main obstacle to the success of the NASA and JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) mission. As MiMi Aung, the project manager, explained very simply: “Here (on Mars) fewer air particles have to be pressed”. However, it is the same air pressure under the helicopter’s wings that causes it to rise off the ground. The JPL engineers behind the drone therefore had to rethink the laws of buoyancy known on Earth in order to apply them to the Martian world, which is very different from ours.

As if the event itself wasn’t complex enough, NASA had to postpone this first flight for a week after discovering a technical problem with the drone. After hours of repairing the miniature helicopter, it received the green light from its developers to blow it up.

Ingenuity’s shadow then flew ten feet above the ground. © NASA

A big leap into the unknown

30 seconds to make history. This is how Ingenuity’s mission could be summed up shortly before the first flight. Because if the latter is the very first to be done on Mars, it may not be the most impressive for very long. In fact, Ingenuity only took off from ten feet for about thirty seconds before gently returning to the Martian floor. Information about this first flight on Earth should arrive in the coming days and weeks.

The most beautiful pictures should have been taken by the Perseverance rover, which was able to film the entire starting scene several meters before the start. Ingenuity, for its part, will be sending a black and white photo of the Martian soil in the next few hours. In the coming days, the small NASA drone will charge its batteries and transfer a color photo of the Mars horizon to earth at a height of three meters.

This first flight is closely related to the first flight of an airplane on Earth in 1903. The JPL was then called the Wright Brothers, and Ingenuity was just a canvas airplane. That first aircraft in history to fly part of its network was brought to Mars with Ingenuity so it could fly again nearly 120 years after its first success in North Carolina.

You wouldn’t believe what I just saw.

More pictures and videos will follow… # MarsHelicopterhttps: //t.co/PLapgbHeZU pic.twitter.com/mbiOGx4tJZ

– NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) April 19, 2021

A gateway to a new way of exploring?

If right now it is difficult to measure the magnitude of the feat that JPL’s engineers and researchers have done, perhaps the future will tell us that it will revolutionize the way we explore the neighboring planets. By successfully flying a human object in a different atmosphere than ours. You have just proven that our aviation models are valid elsewhere than on earth.

The information collected by Ingenuity is intended to provide a better understanding of how objects in flight behave in (very) different atmospheres than ours. They will be very useful to the teams in charge of the flights from Artemis, NASA’s program that aims to send men back to the moon within a few years.

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