NASA's Mars Helicopter makes historic first flight

Frames from a video show Ingenuity hovering above the Martian surface

NASA is targeting no earlier than Monday, April 19, for the first flight of its Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at approximately 3:30 a.m. EDT (12:30 a.m. PDT).

"We've been talking for so long about our Wright Brothers moment on Mars, and here it is".

The first powered flight on Earth was achieved by the Wright brothers in 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Inside the flight operations center at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, engineers broke into applausewhen confirmation of the flight arrived in a data burst that took about three hours to travel the 178 million miles from Mars to Earth.

It was a triumphant add-on to the main part of NASA's latest Mars mission - the Perseverance rover, a car-sized vehicle that is set to explore a crater that once held water and could yield clues to the history of the planet and whether life ever existed there.

The space agency's Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars in February, recently deployed a 1.8kg helicopter specially made for Martian conditions.

The $85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward.

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"Over the next month, the flights get progressively a little bit more advanced". Speaking on a NASA webcast early Monday, she called it the "ultimate dream".

The mission team will attempt four more flights after today's success. The room erupted in cheers and applause. But Ingenuity could pave the way for future extraterrestrial helicopters that would do reconnaissance for rovers and astronauts, study the surface of Mars or other planets from the air, and fly through canyons and cliffs that may be inaccessible to rovers.

NASA had been aiming for a 40-second flight, and while details were initially sparse, the craft hit all its targets: spin-up, takeoff, hover, descent and landing. The two pairs of blades must spin in opposite directions at about 2,500 revolutions per minute - about eight times as fast as a passenger helicopter on Earth - to lift the 4-pound drone. At the same time, it had to be sturdy enough to withstand the Martian wind and extreme cold. The body is about the size of a tissue box. The carbon-fiber, foam-filled rotors are the biggest pieces: Each pair stretches 4 feet (1.2 meters) tip to tip. On the very top is a small solar panel for charging the helicopter's six lithium batteries. NASA successfully tested the rotors on Friday, and it has a plan and a backup plan for Monday's flight, wrote MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at JPL.

The helicopter's mission will end at the end of April. "Get to the chopper!" he shouted, re-enacting a line from his 1987 sci-fi film "Predator".

The livestream covering the test flight will kick off at 06:15 am EDT (10:15 am UTC).

Getting the helicopter into space was easy.

Success hinges on Ingenuity executing the pre-programmed flight instructions using an autonomous pilot and navigation system. The mission is meant to search for evidence of ancient microbial life, analyse Martian rocks, and research the landscape, providing important information for future launches bound for Mars.

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