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NASA successfully completes first-ever controlled helicopter flight on another planet

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Members of the NASA Mars Helicopter team inspecting the flight model before it left on its journey to Mars

The Mars Helicopter Ingenuity successfully took to the Red Planet skies for a brief jaunt, which will hopefully be the first of several.

"We've been talking for so long about our Wright Brothers moment on Mars, and here it is". But Ingenuity could pave the way for future extraterrestrial helicopters that would do reconnaissance for rovers and astronauts, study the surface of Mars or other planets from the air, and fly through canyons and cliffs that may be inaccessible to rovers. Ingenuity hitched a ride to Mars on Perseverance, clinging to the rover's belly upon their arrival in an ancient river delta in February.

The helicopter rose for about six seconds, hovered and rotated for about 30 seconds, then descended again.

The flight occurred very early this morning, and NASA received telemetry confirming that the "Ingenuity" helicopter it sent to Mars with its Perseverance rover.

"By its nature, it's going to have a little bit more risk than a normal mission", Ravich said. Created to fly in the thin Martian atmosphere, the blades are much larger than would be needed for a similar-sized helicopter on Earth.

But Dragonfly is still only the beginning of NASA's space-drone dreams.

Aung and her team had to wait more than three excruciating hours before learning whether the pre-programmed flight had succeeded 178 million miles (287 million kilometers) away. Ingenuity's engineers have since fixed the problem by tweaking the helicopter's flight-control software. The room erupted in cheers and applause. The two pairs of blades must spin in opposite directions at about 2,500 revolutions per minute - about eight times as fast as a passenger helicopter on Earth - to lift the 4-pound drone.

The helicopter is topped with a solar panel for recharging the batteries, crucial for its survival during the minus-130 degree Fahrenheit (minus-90 degree-Celsius) Martian nights. That test involved spinning the helicopter's carbon-fiber blades at full speed while on the ground.

Up to five helicopter flights are planned, each one increasingly ambitious.

Following the confirmation of the flight's success and the reveal of the images from Ingenuity and the Perseverance rover, Mimi Aun, project manager at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), gave an emotional speech in which she likened the Ingenuity project's first successful test flight to a Wright Brothers moment.

The helicopter's mission will end at the end of April. High-altitude helicopters here on Earth could also benefit - imagine choppers easily navigating the Himalayas.

Over the next month, Ingenuity will perform up to another four flights roughly every three Martian days.

The spin test required the addition of a few commands to the flight operations sequence, and the team managed to test it out both here on Earth, and over on Mars. The mission is meant to search for evidence of ancient microbial life, analyse Martian rocks, and research the landscape, providing important information for future launches bound for Mars. "So let's all get the popcorn", said Elsa Jensen, who oversees the cameras on the rover.

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