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NASA marks a year since Mars drone’s historic first flight

NASA’s team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California is celebrating one year since its plucky Ingenuity helicopter became the first aircraft to achieve controlled, powered flight on another planet.

Ingenuity’s maiden flight took place on April 19, 2021, and the team marked occasion by sharing a video showing that special moment 12 months ago when news came through that the drone-like aircraft had successfully performed its record-breaking first flight:

On April 19, 2021, our #MarsHelicopter made history by completing the first powered flight on another planet. The flight lasted 39.1 seconds. One year later, Ingenuity has logged over 46 minutes aloft and traveled 3.6 miles (5.8 km). See what’s next:

— NASA (@NASA) April 19, 2022

The team spent years designing, building, and testing the 4-pound, 19-inch-high helicopter before strapping it to the underbelly of the Perseverance rover and sending it all the way to the red planet.

After reaching Mars in February 2021, Ingenuity performed its first flight a couple of months later, taking to the martian skies in a low-altitude hover lasting 39 seconds. One of Perseverance’s cameras captured the historic moment:

Video of the first flight of Mars Helicopter Ingenuity, including takeoff and landing.

Credit: NASA​/​JPL-Caltech​/​ASU​/​MSSS

— Wonder of Science (@wonderofscience) April 20, 2021

The flight was significant as it proved that Ingenuity could handle Mars’ super-thin atmosphere, which is 100 times thinner than Earth’s. It also gave NASA engineers the inspiration to consider more complex designs for future rotorcraft that can be used to assist upcoming missions to Mars.

In the 12 months since its maiden flight, Ingenuity has completed increasingly complex flights, logging a total of 46 minutes in the air and traveling 3.6 miles (5.8 kilometers) across 25 separate missions.

The aircraft’s most recent flight, which took place on April 8, saw it set a new speed record of 12.3 mph (5.5 meters per second) while covering a record distance of 708.4 meters.

Its longest time in the air during a single flight is 169.5 seconds, recorded on a mission last summer.

Performing far beyond expectations, the team at JPL transitioned Ingenuity from a technology demonstration project to an operations demonstration phase after just four flights, a move that paved the way for the helicopter to assist Perseverance in its exploration of the distant planet as its seeks to find evidence of ancient microbial life.

Since then, the aircraft has been using its onboard cameras to photograph terrain to help the JPL team plan safe and efficient routes for Perseverance to take between locations of interest.

But as you might expect with a piece of new kit, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Ingenuity and the team has had to overcome several technical issues along the way. Its ability to overcome these problems from millions of miles away to send Ingenuity skyward again and again is a mark of the helicopter’s incredible design and the engineers’ impressive skills.

Looking ahead, the team will be keen to push Ingenuity to its limits while keeping the machine safe, so expect news of even more challenging flights in the coming months.

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Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
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