NASA’s latest Mars rover dropped off a little helicopter the other day and Ingenuity, the little box-sized chopper, was finally due to take its first flight yesterday on another planet. It, of course, succeeded, or we wouldn’t be talking about it right now.
Ingenuity’s 39-second flight lasted long enough to a) prove that it’s possible to fly a human craft on an alien planet and b) enter the history books, because it’s the first time that anyone’s ever done that. So let’s take a look at what history looks like, shall we?
That’s some Ingenuity
— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) April 19, 2021
As you can see from the NASA JPL tweet above, history doesn’t look especially exciting. But that’s because you’re watching this short video clip from Earth, where this is normal. If you were watching it on Mars, you would have… well, suffocated long before now, but that’s not the point. NASA’s $85 million space helicopter takes off from the Martian surface, flies three metres directly upwards, stays there long enough to send back a picture of the ground using its navigation cam, and then settles back onto the ground under control.
It doesn’t seem like much but, before this could take place, it had to be unloaded by Perseverance, tested and checked, and then the little chopper’s flight control system had to be reinstalled, from Earth. If you’ve ever tried to install a computer program over the phone for an older relative, you’ve got a vague idea of how difficult this actually was. But it’s on Mars, it flies, and it’ll be sending back its first photographs soon enough.
Next for the solar-powered Ingenuity? Just more tests, we’re afraid. If it survives the second trial, NASA will figure out what else they’d like to do with it. We’re hoping for a DJI drone-style video of the Martian landscape but that’s probably a little too much to ask for.