NASA has successfully flown a small helicopter on Mars, the first time a helicopter has ever flown on a planet other than Earth.
The ‘Ingenuity‘ drone took off from NASA’s ‘Perseverance‘ rover, which landed in the Jezero Crater on the Red Planet in February. The flight lasted less than 40 seconds and took the helicopter around 3m into the thin Martian atmosphere.
The thin atmosphere makes it much harder to fly a helicopter compared to Earth, as there is less for the rotor blades to push against.
The rover and the helicopter were sent to Mars in order to find signs of prehistoric life that they think could have inhabited Mars many millions of years ago.
MiMi Aung, project manager for Ingenuity at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told the BBC:
“We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet. We’ve been talking for so long about our ‘Wright Brothers moment’ on Mars, and here it is.”
When asked if she was surprised the helicopter worked, Aung said:
“No, I’m not. We really had nailed the equations, the models and the verification here on Earth in our laboratory tests. So, it then became a question of: have we chosen the right materials to build Ingenuity, to survive the space environment, to survive the Mars environment?”
The small light drone will now take black and white pictures of Mars as it travels from place to place, powered by its 350 watt battery engine. It is hoped that the use of the helicopter could revolutionise how we explore distant worlds in the years to come.
Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of science at NASA, went on to say just how useful the helicopter will be for exploring the red planet. He said:
“It’s really taking a tool that we haven’t been able to use before and putting it in the box of tools that is available for all of our missions going forward at Mars. So for me, it’s really exciting personally and for the community overall it opens up new doors. We will be able to explore areas where we cannot use a rover. Some of these crater walls, for example, are so exciting; scientists have been writing papers about them.”
Further NASA missions using helicopters are planned for Saturn’s Titan moon, one should arrive there in around 15 years.