NASA has confirmed that it managed to fly a four-pound helicopter from the surface of Mars. The flight becomes the first powered flight by an aircraft to take off on a different planet other than Earth.
NASA officials believe that this is a huge milestone and even compared it to the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903. The chopper, which is called Ingenuity, lifted off the ground on Mars and gained a height of about 10 feet. It then hovered for a few seconds as the wind blew before it softly landed back on the ground once more.
Although the flight lasted for only 30 seconds, it has a huge feat of engineering that adds to the growing confidence that Mars will indeed become home for mankind very soon. But the significance of this test is obviously on the exploration of Mars. For many years, exploration on the red planet has often been done through a ground-based probe.
Although so far these probes have returned a lot of useful data, they don’t move nearly as fast as an airborne device would. Scientists argue that the flight test paves the way for certain future airborne probes that could help explore Mars faster and much more effectively compared to ground exploration.
There’s already a plan within NASA to build a 50-pound aircraft to be used on Mars. Such aircraft could be used to carry supplies and conduct experiments in the future. And it's not hard to see why a chopper offers great benefits. According to Michael Watkins, an official from the space agency, a helicopter "cannot get stuck in a crater" and would easily access areas that can't be accessed by a ground rover.
But even then, there could be huge challenges putting a heavy chopper above ground on the red planet. This is because the atmosphere on Mars is very thin. In fact, it’s 1% the density of what we are used to on Earth. This means that it’s very difficult for a helicopter to generate enough lift through spinning roller blades. It will require a minimum rotational speed of 2,500 revolutions per minute to generate any kind of lift for the chopper.
Building such a device is not easy and it's the reason why NASA seems to be focusing more on smaller and lighter choppers at the moment. Besides, this could be a massively expensive undertaking. For example, Ingenuity, which measures 4 pounds in weight, costs around $80 million to build. Imagine how much money it would take to build a bigger chopper.
Despite this, the fact that NASA is already considering this is a sign that air travel in Mars will be a huge thing and as such, it won’t be a surprise to see the space agency invest money towards the development of airborne rovers. As for now, things are looking quite promising.