NASA helicopter takes first flight on Mars

An image from Mars shows the Ingenuity helicopter casting a shadow as it hovers above the surface.
An image from Mars shows the Ingenuity helicopter casting a shadow as it hovers above the surface.

NASA has scored a 21st-century Wright Brothers moment as it sent its miniature robot helicopter Ingenuity buzzing above the surface of Mars for nearly 40 seconds, marking the first powered controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet.

Officials at the US space agency hailed the brief flight of the 1.8-kilogram rotorcraft as an achievement that would help pave the way for a new mode of aerial exploration on Mars and other destinations in the solar system, such as Venus and Saturn's moon Titan.

The debut flight of Ingenuity, resembling a large metallic tissue box with four legs and a twin-rotor parasol, was documented in full-colour video by cameras aboard the science rover vehicle Perseverance, which carried the helicopter to the Red Planet two months ago.

Mission managers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles burst into applause and cheers on Monday as data beamed back from Mars confirmed the solar-powered helicopter had performed its maiden 39-second flight three hours earlier, precisely as planned.

"We can now say that human beings have flown an aircraft on another planet," said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at JPL, during a NASA live-stream of the flight confirmation.

Altimeter readings from the rotorcraft showed it became airborne at 3.34am EDT (1734 AEST) on Monday, climbed as programmed to a height of three metres, then hovered steadily in place for half a minute while pivoting 96 degrees before making a safe touchdown, NASA said.

"That's what we told Ingenuity to do, and it did exactly that," Havard Grip, Ingenuity's chief pilot at JPL, told a post-flight briefing. He called the flight "flawless".

NASA likened the achievement to the Wright Brothers' first controlled flight of their motor-driven plane near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December 1903 - a takeoff and landing that covered just 37m in 12 seconds.

Early images included a black-and-white still photo taken by an onboard camera while the helicopter was aloft, showing the distinct shadow cast by Ingenuity in the Martian sunlight onto the ground below it.

A separate camera mounted on Perseverance, parked about 60m away, captured video of the rotorcraft's entire flight against the landscape surrounding it.

The flight marked a historic feat in interplanetary aviation, taking place on an "air field" 278 million kilometres from earth on the floor of a vast Martian basin called Jezero Crater.

In honour of the first human flight 117 years ago at Kitty Hawk, NASA officially designated Ingenuity's flight zone as Wright Brothers Field.

The tiny rotorcraft hitched a ride to the Red Planet strapped to the belly of Perseverance, a six-wheeled astrobiology lab that landed in Jezero Crater on February 18 after a nearly seven-month journey.

JPL plans to press the aircraft to its brink with four more flights going further, faster and higher in the next two weeks. The first is targeted for Thursday.

Ingenuity was developed as a technology demonstration, separate from Perseverance's primary mission to search for traces of ancient micro-organisms and collect Martian rock samples.

While Mars possesses much less gravity to overcome than earth, its atmosphere is just one per cent as dense, making it difficult to generate aerodynamic lift. To compensate, engineers equipped Ingenuity with rotor blades that are larger (1.2m) and spin far more rapidly than would be needed on earth.

It also had to withstand overnight Martian temperatures dropping as low as minus 90C, using solar power alone to recharge and keep internal components properly heated.

The first flight was delayed a week by a technical glitch.

Australian Associated Press