A small robotic helicopter named Ingenuity on Monday scripted history when it lifted off the surface of Mars and hovered in the wispy air of the red planet. It was the first machine from Earth ever to fly like an airplane or a helicopter in another world.
In NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, engineers cheered just before 7 am Eastern time as an image was transmitted back to Earth by the helicopter showing its shadow looming over the Martian surface during its flight, which occurred around 3:30 a.m. on Mars.
The first flight was a modest up-and-down trip, rising up to an altitude of just 10 feet. There, it hovered for up to 30 seconds and then descended to a landing. Its onboard camera recorded images, helping the navigation system keep the helicopter steady. It is difficult to fly aircraft in March as there is not much air to push against to generate lift.
At the surface of Mars, the atmosphere is just 1/100th as dense as Earth’s. The lesser gravity one-third of what you feel here helps with getting airborne. But taking off from the surface of Mars is comparable to flying at an altitude of 100,000 feet on Earth. No helicopter on our planet has flown that high, and it’s more than two times the typical flying altitude of jetliners.