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Historic ‘Ingenuity’ flight on Mars could change planetary exploration

This week, NASA’s Mars helicopter ‘Ingenuity’ performed the first ever flight on another world. Could this historic demonstration mark the start of a whole new mode of planetary travel?

Is there a prouder moment than seeing your child break out of their bicycle stabilisers and roam free? Many an employee at NASA experienced that feeling for the first time on Monday (April 19th), as Ingenuity nailed its debut flight test.

Engineers at the space agency kickstarted the week with a historic announcement. At 3:30am (12:30pm Mars time), the mini helicopter that once clung to the undercarriage of the Mars rover Perseverance took to the skies for the first time.

The super engineered four-pound machine spun its twin motor blades and elevated itself 10 feet above the red surface autonomously, hovering for 39 seconds and performing a pivot manoeuvre before safety descending again.

For those initially picturing a mazy flight over the stretching dunes and mountains of Mars, unfortunately we aren’t quite there yet.

Nevertheless, the debut test was celebrated momentously by engineers in an operating room 173 million miles away and rightly so, with all recognising this small success could have game changing ramifications for planetary exploration forever.

With flight tests delayed several times due to software and pre-flight glitches, everything came together on Monday and the triumph was lauded as another Wright brothers moment.

NASA’s victory has now opened conversations about the immense potential of rotary aircraft among space researchers, stirring the notion that the new mode could soon take the lead from traditional rovers when it comes to exploring other planets.

While Perseverance remains key to answering our immediate questions about the ancient history of Mars, and the probability of human colonisation on it some day (click here for more details) NASA is now keen to up the stakes with Ingenuity’s testing to see if the helicopter may contribute to the mission.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Director Michael Watkins claimed Ingenuity’s flight unlocked ‘the third dimension’ of travel on other worlds. ‘It freed us from the surface forever in planetary exploration,’ he told reporters in a press conference.

Upon completing its ascension from the launchpad – initially mapped out by Perseverance – Ingenuity captured a sequence of black and white images showing the ground below. More excitingly though, the rover at a safe distance (211 feet away) recorded a time lapse of coloured images showing the helicopter in motion for the first time.

Today, as NASA’s rover trickles across the landscape towards the Jezero Crater in search of microfossils, engineers are keen to get Ingenuity off its landing skids once again.

Currently in the process of examining data from the first flight and drawing up parameters for more daring tests in both altitude and speed, NASA is already dotting upcoming dates on its calendar – the next flight being on April 22nd. You know what drone enthusiasts are like?

As Ingenuity’s project manager MiMi Aung declared to Mission Control moments after confirmation, ‘This is just the first great flight.’ Let’s hope the rest go as smoothly.