CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida: NASA’s experimental Mars helicopter rose from the dusty red surface into the thin air on Monday (Apr 19), achieving the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.
The triumph was hailed as a Wright Brothers moment. The mini 1.8kg helicopter named Ingenuity, in fact, carried a bit of wing fabric from the 1903 Wright Flyer, which made similar history in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
“We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” project manager MiMi Aung announced to her team.
Flight controllers in California confirmed Ingenuity’s brief hop after receiving data via the Perseverance rover, which stood watch more than 65m away.
Ingenuity hitched a ride to Mars on Perseverance, clinging to the rover’s belly upon their arrival in an ancient river delta in February.
The US$85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward.
“Each world gets only one first flight,” Aung noted earlier this month. Speaking on a NASA webcast early on Monday, she called it the “ultimate dream”.
Aung and her team had to wait more than three excruciating hours before learning whether the pre-programmed flight had succeeded 287 million kilometres away.
Adding to their anxiety, a software error prevented the helicopter from lifting off a week earlier, and had engineers scrambling to come up with a fix.