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The University of Southampton

Mars helicopter flight a ‘David and Goliath moment of spectacular success’

Published: 19 April 2021
NASA helicopter Ingenuity
NASA's solar-powered helicopter Ingenuity has made history by flying remotely-controlled on Mars.

The most remote autonomous helicopter in the solar system has made its maiden flight, hovering above the surface of the planet Mars for several seconds before landing safely.

NASA’s solar-powered helicopter – named ‘Ingenuity’ – is the first aircraft in history to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet after hitching a ride to the red planet on the rover ‘Perseverance’. Mars is currently around 300 million kilometres from Earth which means that radio signals take minutes to traverse the intervening space.

Dr Jessica Whiteside, Associate Professor of Geochemistry within Ocean and Earth Science at the University of Southampton, describes the environmental and atmospheric challenges of this first flight which Ingenuity successfully overcame to rise a few metres above the surface.

“This was a David and Goliath moment of spectacular success, and that is what NASA is very good at—useful tests and science but also capturing the imagination,” Dr Whiteside enthused. “It’s the first thing like this EVER. We have never flown a helicopter on another planetary or lunar body, and this is the first time ANY craft has lifted off from another planet.

“Flying in unfriendly skies was the biggest challenge  — with the Martian atmosphere only 1% as thick as our own planet’s, it was the equivalent of flying at three times higher than Mount Everest, or twice the altitude of normal jetliners, far above the ceiling for terrestrial helicopters.” Dr Whiteside explained. “And there was a litany of other obstacles surpassed: strong winds, dust storms, temperatures surpassing -90 Celsius, a reverse origami unfolding horizontal “birth” from the belly of Perseverance a mere 16 days ago - all choreographed from a distance of nearly 300 million kilometres, and success resting on the shoulders of a 1.8 kg, melon-sized robocopter with spindly legs and blades the weight of tissues.

“This was an alpha test for all sorts of possibilities — including the extension of exploration of humanity's avatars, which are currently restricted to the ground of alien worlds or their dark orbits,” she continued. “We’ve entered a brave new world where helicopters (or a fleet of copters!) could scout ahead to provide a birdseye view of the terrain, buzz around inaccessible cliffs and craters, including possibly the weird and wonderful recurring streaks of briny water flowing down steep, warm slopes or other life-favouring areas possibly restricted for planetary protection reasons.

“I can envision a future robocopter hovering and doing detailed characterisation - a veritable Swiss Army knife on blades — collecting samples or buzzing about with a life-detecting methane sniffer. Future siblings will possibly carry a human astronaut,” Dr Whiteside concluded. “And Mars is only the beginning, with a larger, octocopter version named Dragonfly destined for its own life hunt on Saturn’s moon Titan in six years, to explore its liquid hydrocarbon lakes and methane rainstorms. The sky is no longer the limit!”


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