May 17. 2021. 4:35

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Nasa performs first flight of Ingenuity Mars helicopter

The small helicopter successfully took flight on Mars on Monday, hovering in the air at about 3m, before descending and touching back down on the Martian surface. Photograph: PA/Nasa

Nasa’s miniature robot helicopter Ingenuity performed a successful takeoff and landing on Mars early on Monday, achieving the first powered, controlled flight by an aircraft over the surface of another planet, the US space agency said.

The solar-powered whirligig’s debut on the Red Planet marked a 21st-century Wright Brothers moment for Nasa, which said success could pave the way for new modes of exploration on Mars and other destinations in the solar system, such as Venus and Saturn’s moon Titan.

Mission managers at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles burst into applause and cheers as engineering data beamed back from Mars confirmed that the 1.8kg (4lb) twin-rotor helicopter had performed its maiden 40-second flight as planned about three hours earlier.

The robot rotorcraft was programmed to ascend 3m (10ft) straight up, then hover and rotate in place for half a minute before settling back down on its four legs. JPL officials said data returned from Mars showed that this had in fact occurred.

During Nasa’s own coverage of the event livestreamed from JPL headquarters, the space agency displayed the first images from the flight.

The Ingenuity helicopter seen on Mars as viewed by the Perseverance rover rear Hazard Camera on April 4th, 2021. Photograph: Nasa/JPL-Caltech/AFP via Getty Images

A black-and-white photo taken by a downward-pointing onboard camera while the helicopter was aloft showed the distinct shadow cast by Ingenuity onto the ground.

A snippet of colour video footage captured by a separate camera mounted on the Mars rover Perseverance showed the helicopter in flight against the orange-coloured landscape surrounding it.

This NASA photo obtained on April 6th, 2021, shows the helicopter with all four of its legs deployed before dropping from the belly of the Perseverance rover on March 30th, 2021. Photograph: Nasa/JPL-Caltech/AFP via Getty Images

“We can now say that human beings have flown an aircraft on another planet,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at JPL. – Reuters