In February, NASA’s latest Mars rover Perseverance landed on the surface of the red planet. Its mission: to look for evidence of past life. It’s been three months since that mission began, and it has already completed some of its mission objectives and achieved several historical firsts.
On 19 April, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter became the first-ever aircraft in history to fly across the sky of another planet. The helicopter was brought to the surface of Mars by the Perseverance rover. It managed to hover at an altitude of 10 feet (three metres) for 30 seconds.
What makes this historical flight even more extraordinary is that the conditions for flight on Mars are vastly different from the conditions on Earth: the red planet has a significantly lower gravity (only one-third of Earth’s gravity) and an atmosphere with at its surface only one per cent of the pressure that our own planet’s atmosphere has.
While the lower gravity is a favourable condition for take-off, the thin atmosphere makes it difficult to achieve enough lift because of the fewer air molecules present for Ingenuity’s rotor blades to interact with. These unique conditions meant that it was not certain the helicopter would have been able to hover above the surface for the 30 seconds it did.
The data that has been collected as a result of this flight contains insights on how remote operation of an aircraft on another planet can take place and thus valuable information for future Mars exploration missions.
Since its first flight, Ingenuity has soared through the Martian sky three more times. The latest flight saw the helicopter reach an altitude of 16 feet (five metres) and flying south for about 436 feet (133 metres).
This historical first flight was not the only first taking place during the last couple of months of the Mars mission. The very next day after the successful first flight, the Perseverance rover managed to make breathable oxygen. Using a unit called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE for short), the rover converted carbon dioxide into five grams of oxygen – about 10 minutes of breathable air for an astronaut.
According to Trudy Kortes, Director of Technology Demonstrations within NASA’s STMD department, MOXIE is the first technology of its kind that will help future missions “live off the land,” using elements of another world’s environment to convert into useable elements like oxygen or even water.
Even though MOXIE’s first oxygen production was quite modest, it is the first step towards bigger projects. Oxygen is a vital element to future Mars exploration missions as it is not only vital for the survival of astronauts on the planet, it is also used as fuel for aircraft to take off on the planet for the return journey to Earth. Without oxygen, future Mars missions are virtually impossible, which makes this first step quite ground-breaking.