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NASA’s Mars helicopter wins prestigious space exploration award

The team behind NASA’s Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, has won this year’s John L. “Jack” Swigert Jr. Award for Space Exploration from the Space Foundation. The prestigious annual prize recognizes extraordinary accomplishments in the realm of space exploration and discovery.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is conducting NASA’s current Mars mission, announced the news in a tweet on Tuesday, June 15.

Cheers for the #MarsHelicopter team! 🎉 The Ingenuity crew has won the @SpaceFoundation’s 2021 John L. “Jack” Swigert, Jr. Award for Space Exploration, highlighting the rotorcraft's historic achievements on the Red Planet.

— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) June 15, 2021

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter made history in April when it became the first aircraft to achieve powered, controlled flight on another planet.

California-based JPL has met multiple challenges to get this far, including designing and building a flying machine that could handle Mars’ extremely thin atmosphere, getting the helicopter safely onto the Martian surface at the end of a six-month journey from Earth, and then operating it from several hundred million miles away. The 4-pound, 19-inch-tall helicopter recently completed its seventh successful flight on the red planet as the team moves from proving it can fly to exploring how such machines can aid future missions to Mars and other planets.

“The NASA Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has proven itself a milestone in aviation and aeronautics history by performing the first flight of a powered and controlled aircraft on another planet, allowing observation of Mars from an aerial perspective, and enabling the collection of data about conducting flight in a challenging atmosphere,” the Space Foundation said in a post on its website.

Space Foundation CEO Tom Zelibor commented, “As a multiple-time recipient of the John L. ‘Jack’ Swigert Jr. Award for Space Exploration, the NASA JPL team continues to raise the bar when it comes to extraordinary accomplishments in the realm of space exploration and discovery.”

Zelibor added, “The work of this most unique team has changed history not just on this planet, but it has also truly accomplished a feat beyond compare.”

While Ingenuity’s maiden flight consisted of little more than a hover just three meters from the ground, subsequent flights have seen it travel as far as 266 meters at up to 10 meters from the Martian surface. JPL is continuing to design new flight plans for the helicopter to fully explore its capabilities.

JPL will receive its award at the Space Foundation’s 36th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on August 23.

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