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NASA launches tiny Mars chopper 'Ingenuity' on a historic flight

“We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet," MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager, said after the successful flight.
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NASA's miniature Mars helicopter Ingenuity achieved the first powered flight on another planet on Monday.

The 4-pound solar-powered helicopter ascended above the Martian surface, hovered and then touched back down, mission control said.

The feat was documented by a photo received from the helicopter's onboard navigation camera, showing a shadow cast by Ingenuity above the Mars surface. A color video showing the flight came moments after.

"It's real," MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager said moments after first data from the helicopter was processed to the applause and cheers of engineers in mission control.

Aung gave a thumbs up and tore up her contingency speech in celebration.

“We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet," Aung said.

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

NASA has been likening the experiment to the Wright brothers' feat 117 years ago, paying tribute to that modest, but monumental first flight by having affixed a tiny swath of wing fabric from the original Wright flyer under Ingenuity's solar panel.

While Monday's flight metrics may seem less than ambitious, the "air field" for the interplanetary test flight is 173 million miles from Earth, on the floor of a vast Martian basin called Jezero Crater.

The robot rotorcraft was carried to the red planet strapped to the belly of NASA's Mars rover Perseverance, a mobile astrobiology lab that touched down on Feb. 18 in Jezero Crater after a nearly seven-month journey through space to search for traces of ancient life on the planet.

Aung and her team had to wait more than three excruciating hours before learning whether the pre-programmed flight had succeeded.

After a celebration of their success, she thanked the scientists, some of whom she said have worked on the project for six years or longer.

“This is just the first great flight," she said, adding that they must celebrate this moment and then go back to work on more flights.

Ingenuity is now expected to undertake several additional, lengthier flights in the weeks ahead, though it will need to rest four to five days in between each to recharge its batteries.

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NASA hopes Ingenuity will pave the way for aerial surveillance of Mars and other destinations in the solar system, such as Venus or Saturn's moon Titan.

While Mars possesses much less gravity to overcome than Earth, its atmosphere is just 1 percent as dense, presenting a special challenge for aerodynamic lift. To compensate, engineers equipped Ingenuity with rotor blades that are larger (4-feet-long) and spin more rapidly than would be needed on Earth for an aircraft of its size.

The planned flight was delayed for a week by a technical glitch during a test spin of the aircraft's rotors on April 9.