Nasa's Mars helicopter completes first controlled flight following lift-off of Ingenuity

NASA has completed the first controlled flight on another planet following the lift-off of its Mars helicopter-drone, Ingenuity.

The agency announced the successful launch of the ultralightweight robot on Monday following a week of delays caused by technical issues.

The drone flew under two 1.2m-long rotors that spin in opposite directions at up to 2,500rpm.

That's extremely fast – about two -thirds the speed of sound – to give the four-pound (two-kilo) robot lift through thin Martian atmosphere.

The flight took place in the early hours of Monday morning but was only confirmed once data reached mission control three hours later.

"Altimeter data confirms that Ingenuity has performed its first flight – the first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet," announced an engineer in Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the control room cheered.

A short clip sent back by the Perseverance rover showed the four pound chopper grounded at first, hovering three meters above the Martian surface, then touching back down.

Ingenuity itself sent back a still black-and-white image from its downward pointing camera, showing its own shadow cast on the surface.

"We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet!" said lead engineer MiMi Aung to her team.

"We've been talking so long about our Wright brothers' moment on Mars, and here it is," she added.

Ingenuity is a proof-of-concept vehicle that will pave the way for future Martian probes.

Scientists hope to use drone-like craft to explore hard to reach places such as tunnels and caves, where it's believed life may have once lurked.

Images released Sunday showed the craft on the planet's surface after successfully completing a high-speed "spin-up" test.

It was captured by the Mastcam-Z instrument on Perseverance on the floor of a vast Martian basin called Jezero Crater.

During the test, the grounded helicopter spun its blades at the speed required for flight.

The trip will help Nasa reap invaluable data about the conditions on Mars – which is 173million miles from Earth.

Ingenuity's first flight was delayed after a software issue emerged during a high-speed test of the 4lb helicopter's rotors.

The agency had to rewrite the drone's code and reupload it by relaying with a spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet.

Prior to lift-off, Nasa had called the unprecedented helicopter operation "highly risky" as the air on Mars is so thin – less than one per cent of the pressure of Earth's atmosphere.

Perseverance – What’s on board?

Perseverance boasts a total of 19 cameras and two microphones, and carries seven scientific instruments.

  1. Planetary Instrument for X-Ray Lithochemistry (PIXL)

An X-ray “ray gun” that will help scientists investigate the composition of Martian rock.

2. Radar Imager for Mars' subsurface experiment (RIMFAX)

A ground-penetrating radar that will image buried rocks, meteorites, and even possible underground water sources up to a depth of 10 metres (33ft).

3. Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA)

A bunch of sensors that will take readings of temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, and other atmospheric conditions.

4. Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE)

An experiment that will convert Martian carbon dioxide into oxygen. A scaled-up version could be used in future to provide Martian colonists with breathable air.

5. SuperCam

A suite of instruments for measuring the makeup of rocks and regolith at a distance

6. Mastcam-Z

A camera system capable of taking “3D” images by combining two or more photos into one.

7. Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC)

From Baker Street to Mars: Sherloc contains an ultraviolet laser that will investigate Martian rock for organic compounds.

Nasa plans to perform a further four flights with the craft in the coming weeks.

Ingenuity arrived on Mars attached to the underside of the Perseverance rover, which touched down on February 18.

The rover will characterise the planet's geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of Mars.

It will also be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust).

In other space news, a mind-blowing video has laid bare the enormous scale of some of our Solar System's most famous asteroids.

Nasa has baffled space fans by releasing an image of what appears to be a rainbow on Mars.

And, the mystery surrounding what looks like giant spiders on the surface of Mars may finally have been solved.

Would you like to travel to Mars? Let us know in the comments…

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