Nasa successfully flies small helicopter on Mars

19 Avril, 2021, 15:19 | Auteur: Anatole Charbonneau
  • Members of the NASA Mars Helicopter team inspecting the flight model before it left on its journey to Mars

The drone, called Ingenuity, was airborne for less than a minute, but Nasa is celebrating what represents the first powered, controlled flight by an aircraft on another world.

"We've been talking for so long about our Wright brothers moment, and here it is". The mini 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) copter named Ingenuity, in fact, carried a bit of wing fabric from the 1903 Wright Flyer, which made similar history at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

The helicopter flight forms a part of NASA's Mars Perseverance rover mission, paving the way for human flight to the red planet by the 2030s.

The helicopter, called Ingenuity, traveled almost 300 million miles to the red planet tucked inside the belly of the Perseverance rover.

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

If this flight works, four more flights will take place. The room erupted in cheers and applause.

The first visual indication that the Ingenuity helicopter's test flight was a success came in the form of an altimeter data graph (pictured below), the plateau on the graph indicating the moments in which the aircraft was hovering above the red planet.

This first flight of Ingenuity was an autonomous remote flight, with crews on Earth controlling it just by sending commands through at the appropriate times to signal when it should begin and end its 40-second trip through the Martian 'air.' While that might seem like a really short trip, it provides huge value in terms of the data collected by the helicopter during the flight.

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.

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As Mars has only one percent the atmosphere of Earth, a custom superlight rotor system with a 1.2-meter (4-foot) wingspan was developed, allowing the aircraft to fly at 2,500 RPM - as a point of reference, helicopters on Earth typically fly at 400-500 RPM. At the same time, it had to be sturdy enough to withstand the Martian wind and extreme cold.

These space drones could fly "over ravines, down canyons, up mountains", Josh Ravich, mechanical lead for the Ingenuity team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Insider. The body is about the size of a tissue box. Below that are two carbon fiber rotors that turn in opposite directions.

The helicopter is topped with a solar panel for recharging the batteries, crucial for its survival during the minus-130 degree Fahrenheit (minus-90 degree-Celsius) Martian nights. It turned out to be less than 100 feet (30 meters) from the original landing site in Jezero Crater.

The helicopter's mission will end at the end of April.

The planned flight was delayed for a week by a technical glitch during a test spin of the aircraft's rotors on April 9.

All going well, each flight will become increasingly ambitious.

Space helicopters could one day explore other planets or scout terrain for Mars astronauts.

In NASA's eyes, though, Ingenuity is already victorious, since Monday's feat provides unprecedented data about flight on Mars that will inform future rotorcraft projects. 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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