The ingenuity appears to have successfully completed the first flight: the small helicopter, which landed on the red planet two months ago with the persevering Mars rover, rose three meters in the air as planned, flew for half a minute and then landed safely on the ground again. NASA announced this on its live broadcast. The start was recently delayed due to technical issues.
The image from the camera, which is pointed directly down and also serves for navigation purposes, makes the success visible: the shadow of the plane is visible on it. The persistent Mars rover also imaged the event from about 70 meters away and has already sent some image data back to Earth. They show the little helicopter in flight.
The flight took place around 9:30 AM German time. Because Mars is so far from Earth and signal transit times are so long, it could not be controlled remotely from Earth, but it had to be operated fully automatically. Then the data was sent to a satellite in the orbit of Mars and from there to Earth. This took about three hours.
The plane’s chief engineer, Bob Ballaram, compares the mission to the first motorized flight on Earth: “We’ll feel like the Wright brothers at that time,” he told Spektrum.de in a detailed interview about the mission. Now that “Wright moment” is finally here, project manager MiMi Aung said on the live broadcast.
One of the helicopter’s biggest difficulties is generating enough lift force in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars. It is equipped with two rotors of 1.2 meters long and extremely light that rotate in opposite directions. Only ten centimeters long hangs from them.
If the test flight is successful, it can be followed by up to four others. The first three are designed to test the basic skills of a helicopter. The third flight could already reach 50 meters and then return to the starting point. The ingenuity is not supposed to perform any scientific tasks per se, its purpose is to test helicopter technology under real Martian conditions. In the future, larger helicopters equipped with sensors could fly to our neighboring planet. One advantage over ground vehicles such as Tenacity is that they can cover much longer distances.