NASA aims for historic helicopter flight on Mars

The shadow of NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity is seen during its first flight on the planet in this still image taken from a video

The shadow of NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity is seen during its first flight on the planet in this still image taken from a video

NASA is about to find out whether its Mars helicopter successfully flew its first flight - a feat that could revolutionize spaceflight.

NASA's Perseverance Mars rover took a selfie with the Ingenuity helicopter, seen here about 13 feet (3.9 meters) from the rover. On Earth, the technology could enable helicopters to reach new heights, doing things like more easily navigating the Himalayas.

The black-and-white image above is the first sent back to Earth from Ingenuity and was captured with its navigation camera, which only takes lower-resolution black and white images.

The first visual indication that the Ingenuity helicopter's test flight was a success came in the form of an altimeter data graph (pictured below), the plateau on the graph indicating the moments in which the aircraft was hovering above the red planet. Monday's successful mission wasn't the first attempt at flight. Video was then downloaded and played at mission control, showing the flight from the perspective of the Mars Perseverance rover. Ingenuity is flying in conditions unlike any possible on Earth - the gravity on Mars is only one-third as strong as Earth's, and the air is extremely thin, at just one percent the density of our own.

For Ingenuity's first flight, it should have risen about 10 feet off the ground, hovered there, then gently touched back down.

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Immediately after the flight, Zurbuchen announced the "airfield" on Mars that is hosting Ingenuity would be called Wright Brothers Field, "in recognition of the ingenuity and innovation that continue to propel exploration".

If the test succeeds, Ingenuity will undertake several additional, lengthier flights in the weeks ahead, though it will need to rest four to five days in between each flight to recharge its batteries.

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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 vehicle lifted off at 12:34 AM PDT (07:34 UTC) and flew for 39.1 seconds. While the project considered updating the flight software to correct the problem, they elected instead to adjust the timing of commands, concluding from testing that it would allow the helicopter to take off 85% of the time.

"We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet", said MiMi Aung, project manager for Ingenuity at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

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