The scientists and technicians at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) actually did it! Ingenuity became the first aircraft in history to make a powered flight on another planet. The Ingenuity helicopter had some initial problems when the first “Spin up” test was readied so their computer specialists had to take some time to write a new program and upload it to the vehicle sitting on the surface of Mars.
According to NASA “Ingenuity’s initial flight demonstration was autonomous – piloted by onboard guidance, navigation, and control systems running algorithms developed by the team at JPL. Because data must be sent to and returned from the Red Planet hundreds of millions of miles using orbiting satellites and NASA’s Deep Space Network, Ingenuity cannot be flown with a joystick, and its flight was not observable from Earth in real time.
Believe it or not there is more than one direct connection between this historic flight and another historic flight that took place 118 years ago. On December 17, 1903 Wilbur Wright piloted the Wright Flyer as the first even self-propelled sustained flight in history. Ingenuity performed the same task over another planet. The second connection to Wilbur’s flight is that a piece of the fabric from the Wright Flyer was carried inside Ingenuity on Mars.
The Wright Brothers chose Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina as their makeshift airfield due to the favorable winds there. Ingenuity took off and landed in a previously unnamed location. According to Tomas Zurbuchen, NASA Associate Administrator, the name for that area will now be known as “Wright Brothers Field.”
Let’s take a look at the flight as seen in a recording from the Mastcam-Z on the Perseverance Mars Rover:
It may look like such a simple event. The 4-pound specialized helicopter started up, took off, hovered and successfully landed back on the Martian surface.
The graphic representation of the flight above shows how the helicopter took off, moved in a straight line, accelerated to achieve elevation, dropped back down to an above ground altitude, and then landed.
The control room erupted in cheers and screams of joy by the group that spent so many hours, days, weeks, months, etc. preparing for this unique and historic event.
The following is from a previous column article about the workings of the Ingenuity helicopter.
This unique helicopter is composed of “more that 1,500 individual pieces of carbon fiber, flight-grade aluminum, silicon, copper, foil, and foam.”Earlier this year the helicopter was tested to make sure it would function properly. Quoting NASA Science from the mars.nasa.gov site: “Weighing in at no more than 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms), the helicopter is a technology demonstration project currently going through the rigorous verification process certifying it for Mars.”
Ingenuity passed those tests, pardon the expression, flying colors and as you have seen performed perfectly as expected during its inaugural flight above the Martian surface. The only equipment onboard Ingenuity is the camera. The plan, if everything goes as expected, is to use Ingenuity to scope out exploration sites for Perseverance so the rover will not waste time and energy going to places where it might get stuck or not find mineral deposits that it will examine. This is only the beginning of this spectacular adventure.
Ingenuity made a second flight on Thursday April 22nd and flew higher than the first flight performing a turning maneuver and it flew sideways and tilted sideways making another successful test flight on Mars. Then the vehicle made a third flight Sunday April 25th that was more complicated and flew higher, farther and faster then the previous two flights. This is really only the beginning of the new innovations for future space exploration.
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