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NASA has just flown a helicopter on Mars for the first time

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The news: NASA flew an airplane on another planet for the first time. On Monday, April 19, Ingenuity, a 1.8-kilogram drone helicopter, took off from the surface of Mars, flew about ten feet, then spun and hovered for 40 seconds. The historic moment was streamed live on YouTube, and Ingenuity captured the photo above with one of its two cameras. “We can now say that humans have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” said MiMi Aung, project manager for Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, at a press conference. “We flew together on Mars and now we have our Wright brothers’ moment together,” she added, referring to the first powered flight on Earth in 1903.

In fact, Ingenuity pays homage to that famous flight: a stamp-sized piece of material from the Wright brothers’ airplane hidden under the solar panel. (The Apollo crew also brought a splinter of wood from the Wright Flyer, as it was called, to the moon in 1969.)

The details: The flight was a significant engineering challenge, thanks to Mars’ bone-free temperatures (nights can drop to -90 ° C) and its incredibly thin atmosphere – only 1% the density of Earth. That meant Ingenuity had to be lightweight, with rotor blades larger and faster than necessary to achieve take-off on Earth (although gravity on Mars, which is only about a third of Earth’s gravity, is in their favor worked). The flight was originally scheduled to be on April 11th but was delayed due to software issues.

Why it matters: Not only is the flight an important milestone in the exploration of Mars, but it will also pave the way for engineers to think about new ways to explore other planets. Future drone helicopters could help rovers or even astronauts by locating locations, exploring inaccessible areas, and taking pictures. Ingenuity will also help inform the design of Dragonfly, a wagon-sized drone that NASA plans to send to Saturn’s moon Titan in 2027.

What’s next: In the next few weeks, Ingenuity will operate four more flights, each lasting up to 90 seconds. Each one is designed to further push the boundaries of Ingenuity’s capabilities. Ingenuity is only rated for 30 Mars days and is expected to stop working around May 4th. His final resting place will be in Jezero Crater when NASA turns its primary focus on its mission: to get the Perseverance rover to study Mars as evidence of life.

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Steven Gregory