Nasa’s miniature robot helicopter Ingenuity performed a successful take-off and landing on Mars early on Monday, achieving the first powered, controlled flight by an aircraft over the surface of another planet, the US space agency said.
The twin-rotor whirligig’s debut on the Red Planet marked a 21st-century Wright Brothers moment for Nasa, which said success could pave the way for new modes of exploration on Mars and other destinations in the solar system, such as Venus and Saturn’s moon Titan.
Mission managers at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles burst into applause and cheers as engineering data beamed back from Mars confirmed that the 1.8kg solar-powered helicopter had performed its maiden 39-second flight as planned three hours earlier.
Altimeter readings from the rotorcraft showed that it became airborne at 3.34am EDT (8.34 Irish time), climbed as programmed to a height of 3 metres, then hovered steadily in place over the Martian surface for half a minute before touching back down safely on its four legs, Nasa said.
And a snippet of color video footage captured by a separate camera mounted on the NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance, parked about 200 feet away, showed the helicopter in flight against the orange-colored landscape surrounding it.
“We can now say that human beings have flown an aircraft on another planet,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at JPL.
Despite the flight’s brevity, it marked a historic feat in interplanetary aviation, taking place on an “air field” 173 million miles from Earth on the floor of a vast Martian basin called Jezero Crater.