Last February, NASA landed its Perseverance rover on the planet Mars after a journey through space that lasted since July last year. The rover packs in its SUV-sized chassis a wide array of instruments for analyzing the Martian soil, plus gadgets to perform experiments with on the Red Planet’s surface. These include a CO2-O2 converter and a nifty little helicopter drone called Ingenuity. Ingenuity is to set a milestone for undertaking the first powered flight by a manmade craft on another world. After a series of delays, the date was set for the probe’s test flight this past Monday. Needless to say, it was successful.
The Verge reports that the Ingenuity helicopter drone packaged with the Perseverance Mars rover performed as expected on the early hours of April 19, according to NASA. Shaped like a tissue box and weighing only four pounds, Ingenuity lifted off with its solar-powered twin rotors at about 12:34 PM Mars time (or 3:34 US Eastern Time on Earth), after being deployed from the underside of Perseverance back in April 3. Its vertical hovering flight lasted only about 39 seconds (30 in midair), but it set new records and promised greater possibilities for future Mars missions.
With Ingenuity’s success, NASA and other space agencies around the world can now seriously consider new Mars probe design concepts beyond the stationary lander and the ground-bound rover. Rotorcraft probes could be the next step in covering large areas of the Martian surface for exploration in years to come, the better to tell what to expect when manned Mars missions, or even Martian colonization, is finally on the discussion table. “We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” says Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where the helicopter craft’s engineering control team was stationed.
In a nod to history, Ingenuity carried under its solar panel a fragment of wing from the 1903 Flyer aircraft of the Wright Brothers, similar to how another wing piece was also brought to the Moon and back in 1969 aboard Apollo 11. The surface on Mars’s Jezero crater where Ingenuity took off and landed is now given the name Wright Brothers Field. Photos were taken from the probe’s down-facing navigation camera, alongside footage taken by the main Perseverance rover, “watching” the test flight from 211 feet away. NASA provided a live stream of the images which took three hours to reach Earth from Mars.
Image courtesy of CBS News