NASA flies a helicopter on Mars, the first time an aircraft has flown on another planet


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Inside the flight operations center at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, engineers broke into applause when confirmation of the flight arrived in a data burst that took about three hours to travel the 178 million miles from Mars to Earth.

The atmosphere in the room turned almost giddy when a still photo shot from the helicopter captured its shadow on the ground, followed by video of the aircraft’s flight, captured by the nearby Mars rover.

Scientists say the successful test could eventually help the space agency more quickly roam across Mars as it looks for signs of ancient life.

To make the brief flight, Ingenuity’s technology had to overcome Mars’s super-thin atmosphere — just 1 percent the density of Earth’s — which makes it more difficult for the helicopters’ blades, spinning at about 2,500 revolutions per minute, to gain the purchase they need to pull the vehicle into the air.

It was a triumphant add-on to the main part of NASA’s latest Mars mission — the Perseverance rover, a car-sized vehicle that is set to explore a crater that once held water and could yield clues to the history of the planet and whether life ever existed there.

As a tribute to the Wright brothers, Ingenuity has a postage-sized bit of fabric from the brothers’ aircraft, known as the Flyer, attached to a cable under the solar panel.

If all goes according to plan, the helicopter could make as many as five flights in the coming weeks, each one more ambitious than the last. The second, for example, would fly slightly higher, to 16 feet, and then horizontally for a little bit before returning to the landing site.

The flight was originally scheduled to occur last week. But during a test of the helicopter’s rotors there was a problem that prevented it from completing the test. Engineers at JPL were able to diagnose the problem and were confident in the fix.

But going into the flight Monday they said that anything so difficult and audacious could easily run into problems.

“We’re doing everything we can to make it a success, but we also know that we may have to scrub and try again,” MiMi Aung, NASA’s Ingenuity project manager, wrote in a blog on NASA’s website. “In engineering, there is always uncertainty, but this is what makes working on advanced technology so exciting and rewarding.”

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