On Monday, the Ingenuity helicopter was shot from the Perseverance rover on Mars, hovered in the air for 30 seconds at a three-meter height, and returned to the ground.
The 1.8-kilogram rotorcraft does not carry any scientific instruments nor will go on any research missions, but the successful test will provide valuable data for Nasa to develop future crafts.
Flying in a Martian atmosphere is much more challenging than that on Earth; the helicopter’s twin, counter-rotating rotor blades needed to spin at 2,500 revolutions per minute – five times faster than on Earth – to accomplish the flight.
This is because Mars atmosphere has less than one per cent the pressure of Earth’s, meaning that the helicopter had to be light enough to fly but powerful enough to overcome this lack of atmospheric pushback.
“We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” project manager MiMi Aung told her team soon after the mission was successful.
The following test flights will see the craft fly further and higher across the surface, providing extra information on the performance of the helicopter.
Four more flights are expected to take place over the next two weeks, with Aung saying that the team will be “pushing the envelope”, adding that the helicopter will “further, faster, definitely, especially towards the end of the experimental window.”
Perseverance will continue its task of looking for ancient life on the Red Planet. The rover is designed to extract from Martian rock for future analysis back on Earth, with two subsequent missions set to collect the samples.
It also includes demonstration projects that could help set the path for human exploration of the alien world, such as ways to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen.