NASA helicopter makes history-making first flight on Mars

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(NEXSTAR) — NASA’S helicopter, Ingenuity, rose from the dusty red surface of Mars early Monday morning to become the first aircraft to take flight on another planet.

A news conference is planned for 2 p.m. on Monday. It will be streamed here.

The 4-pound helicopter hovered about 3 yards above the Martian surface, then touched back down, according to NASA. Exuberant applause and cheers erupted in the operations center in California when success was declared. 

“This is real! This is real!” project manager MiMi Aung said during the brief flight. “We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet.”

In what was hailed as a Wright Brothers moment, the copter even carried a bit of wing fabric from the 1903 Wright Flyer, which made similar history at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Speaking on a NASA webcast early Monday, Aung called it the “ultimate dream.”

Flight controllers confirmed Ingenuity’s fete after receiving data via the Perseverance rover, standing watch over 200 feet away.

The first black and white photo showed Ingenuity’s shadow as it hovered above the surface of Mars. Then came the color images of the helicopter descending back to the surface, taken by Perseverance.

Ingenuity arrived at Mars’ Jezero Crater on February 18, attached to the underside of Perseverance.

The copter stands 1.6 feet tall with four spindly legs, and its fuselage, containing its batteries, heaters, and sensors, is the size of a tissue box. The helicopter’s biggest pieces, its pair of carbon-fiber, foam-filled rotors, each stretch 4 feet tip to tip.

The $85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward. “Each world gets only one first flight,” Aung noted earlier this month.

The Mars rover will provide extra support during the flight operation and will take images while collecting environmental data. The rover also hosts the base station that “enables the helicopter to communicate with mission controllers on Earth,” NASA said.

Up to five helicopter flights are planned, and Ingenuity’s team has until the beginning of May to complete them so the rover can get on with its main mission: collecting rock samples that could hold evidence of past Martian life.

The helicopter was initially set to take off on April 11, but the flight was delayed due to a timing glitch in the helicopter’s systems.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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