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Nasa flies helicopter on Mars in 'Wright brothers moment' which could revolutionise space exploration

Nasa has flown a helicopter on Mars in a “Wright brothers moment” which could revolutionise the future of space exploration.

The space agency said the £61m battery powered Ingenuity managed to ascend to around three metres above the surface of the red planet, hover for 30 seconds and then rotate before descending.

It was the first ever powered, controlled flight on another planet and was greeted with jubilant cheers from the team at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in southern California, 170 million miles away.

Project manager Mimi Aung got to her feet and ripped up the papers detailing the emergency plans in case the flight had failed. 

"We've been talking so long about our Wright Brothers moment, and here it is," she said.

Ingenuity stands at just 19 inches tall, weighs 1.8kg and has four carbon fibre rotor blades. Underneath one of the solar panels, engineers affixed a tiny swath of wing fabric from the original Wright brothers plane.

The mission was fraught with difficulty.

Mars has a significantly lower gravity than Earth and an extremely thin atmosphere with only one per cent the pressure at the surface compared to our planet. 

Researchers also had only an estimate of what wind speeds on the red planet and planned for 13 mph.

Made up mostly of carbon dioxide, the less-dense atmosphere requires blade rotation speeds of 2,400 rpm for the chopper to remain aloft - five times what’s needed on Earth. 

Ground controllers had to wait three excruciating hours before learning whether the pre-programmed flight had succeeded.

Then, the stunning images were beamed back to earth.

A snippet of colour video footage captured by a separate camera mounted on the Mars rover Perseverance, parked about 200ft away, showed the helicopter in flight against the orange-coloured landscape surrounding it.

“117 years after the Wright brothers succeeded in making the first flight on our planet, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has succeeded in performing this amazing feat on another world,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Nasa’s Associate Administrator for Science.

He said that the area where the helicopter took off on the Jezero Crater would now be known as the Wright Brothers field.

“While these two iconic moments in aviation history may be separated by time and 173 million miles of space, they now will forever be linked,” he added.

"A whole new way to explore the alien terrain in our solar system is now at our disposal," said Nottingham Trent University astronomer Daniel Brown.

“This first test flight - with more to come by Ingenuity - holds great promise.”

Up to five increasingly ambitious flights are planned, and they could lead the way to a fleet of Martian drones in decades to come, providing aerial views, transporting packages and serving as lookouts for human crews. On Earth, the technology could enable helicopters to reach new heights, doing things like more easily navigating the Himalayas.

Ingenuity's team has until the beginning of May to complete the test flights so that the rover can get on with its main mission: collecting rock samples that could hold evidence of past Martian life, for return to Earth a decade from now.

The team plans to test the helicopter's limits, possibly even wrecking the craft, leaving it to rest in place forever, having sent its data back home.

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