Europe is sending a probe to Venus, teaming up with NASA to rocket 3 missions to the planet in the next 15 years

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An illustration of the EnVision spacecraft with Earth (left) and Venus (right).

After decades of gazing longingly at Mars, the world’s space agencies are finally turning back to look at Venus.

Last week NASA announced that it had picked two new missions to go to Venus – one, called VERITAS, to orbit the planet and another, called DAVINCI+, to plunge to its surface. Now the European Space Agency (ESA) is throwing its hat in the ring.

The ESA revealed Thursday that it’s sending its own probe to Venus – an orbiter called EnVision. The mission aims to study how the planet’s atmosphere, surface, and interior interact to create the infernal pressure cooker it is today. Together, the three probes spell a renaissance in Venutian science.

“A new era in the exploration of our closest, yet wildly different, solar system neighbor awaits us,” Günther Hasinger, ESA Director of Science, said in a press release. “Together with the newly announced NASA-led Venus missions, we will have an extremely comprehensive science program at this enigmatic planet well into the next decade.”

The NASA missions are set to launch between 2028 and 2030, and the ESA probe sometime in the early 2030s.

Venus’ climate became hellish long ago, but it may have hosted life

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A composite image of Venus from NASA’s Magellan spacecraft and Pioneer Venus Orbiter.

Venus used to be a lot like Earth. The two planets are about the same size, and they’re made of the same material. Scientists think Venus could have even had oceans in the distant past.

But something happened that drastically changed Venus’ climate. Today it’s the hottest planet in our solar system, thick with yellow, heat-trapping clouds of sulfuric acid. Its average surface temperature is a blistering 880 degrees Fahrenheit (471 degrees Celsius) – hot enough to melt lead – and its crushing air pressure is more than 90 times that of Earth’s.

The upcoming missions could help scientists understand how Venus became such an extreme environment, whether it was hospitable to life, and whether or not its volcanoes are still erupting.

The world’s interest in Venus was rekindled in September, when a new study suggested the planet’s clouds could harbor microbial aliens.

That’s because researchers found traces of phosphine – a gas typically produced by microbes on Earth – in the upper reaches of Venus’ clouds. However, a follow-up study suggested those trace elements weren’t phosphine, but rather sulfur dioxide, casting doubt on the idea that Venus could be habitable.

These new missions could help settle that debate.

“It is astounding how little we know about Venus, but the combined results of these missions will tell us about the planet from the clouds in its sky through the volcanoes on its surface, all the way down to its very core,” Tom Wagner, a NASA Discovery Program scientist, said in a statement about the NASA missions. “It will be as if we have rediscovered the planet.”

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China has landed a spacecraft on Mars for the first time, delivering a water-hunting rover to the red planet

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An illustration of China’s Zhurong rover leaving the lander to explore the Martian surface.

China has landed its first spacecraft on the surface of Mars, according to Chinese state media.

The mission, called Tianwen-1, or “questions to heaven,” is the first to send a spacecraft into the planet’s orbit, drop a landing platform onto the Martian surface, and deploy a rover all in one expedition.

If everything went according to plan, a gumdrop-shaped landing capsule separated from the Tianwen-1 orbiter on Friday evening and fell toward Mars. With the lander and rover safely tucked inside, the capsule plummeted through the Martian atmosphere, friction heating the material around it to temperatures exceeding 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

High above the red-dust Martian surface, a supersonic parachute had to deploy to slow the capsule’s fall. As the lander neared its destination, thrusters should have fired downward to help it decelerate. Then it should have lowered itself to the surface on a set of legs to absorb the impact.

China has not released details about the state of the lander or rover. But if everything is in good shape, the landing would make China the third nation to ever successfully put a robot on the Martian surface. It’s the first non-NASA Mars landing since the Soviet Union’s rover touched down in 1971.

Tianwen-1 launched in July 2020 and the spacecraft slipped into orbit around Mars in February. Landing was “the most challenging part of the mission,” the CNSA previously said. Only half the spacecraft that have ever attempted a Mars landing have succeeded.

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The Tianwen-1 probe, carrying a lander and rover in a landing capsule, en route to Mars. Photo released December 16, 2020.

Now, China’s first Mars lander and rover are sitting in the middle of Utopia Planitia, a vast field of ancient volcanic rock that may have extensive reserves of water ice beneath its surface. If space agencies like NASA someday send humans to Mars, water would be a crucial resource because it can both sustain astronauts and get broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel. It’s unlikely Mars-bound spaceships could carry enough water, oxygen, and hydrogen for the entire journey there and back.

If all goes well, the lander will deploy a two-track ramp for the six-wheeled rover to roll down onto Martian soil. The rover is called Zhurong, named for ancient Chinese mythology’s god of fire, according to the CNSA. It’s set to explore the region and search for its water ice with ground-penetrating radar.

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The surface of Mars, as photographed by the Tianwen-1 spacecraft circling the planet.

The mission is also intended to help China prepare for a future attempt to return Martian rocks or dirt to Earth in the late 2020s.

“Landing safely on Mars is a huge challenge, especially for China’s first soft landing attempt,” Long Xiao, a planetary scientist at the China University of Geosciences, told National Geographic ahead of the attempt. “But it is a necessary step for Mars and deep-space exploration.”

The Zhurong rover has 90 days to explore Mars – for now

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A replica of the Tianwen-1 Mars rover is displayed during an exhibition inside the National Museum in Beijing, China, March 3, 2021.

At 530 pounds, Zhurong is about the size of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers NASA landed on Mars in 2004. It could take more than a week to deploy the lander’s ramp and roll the rover onto Martian soil, journalist Andrew Jones reported for IEEE Spectrum. Then it will open its butterfly-wing solar panels to soak up the sunlight and charge its batteries.

Once the rover is on the ground, it has about 90 days to study Mars. That’s its official mission timeline, but Spirit and Opportunity had the same three-month window and ended up exploring Mars for six and 14 years, respectively.

The Tianwen-1 orbiter will continue circling the red planet for one Martian year (two Earth years), relaying data to Earth and taking photos. Its main goal is to “perform a global and extensive survey of the entire planet,” according to a journal article by Tianwen-1 scientists.

This will involve charting Mars’ geology, surveying its climate, and measuring its electromagnetic and gravitational fields.

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China plans to attempt an ambitious Mars landing as early as Friday, dropping both a lander and a rover to the red planet

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The first image of Mars taken by China’s Tianwen-1 probe, released by the China National Space Administration on February 5, 2021.

China is about to attempt its first Mars landing – a feat accomplished successfully by only half the spacecraft that have ever tried.

Tianwen-1, as the mission is called, means “questions to heaven.” It aims to be the first Mars mission to send a spacecraft into the planet’s orbit, drop a landing platform onto the Martian surface, and deploy a rover all in one expedition.

The first steps are complete. The mission launched in July 2020 and the spacecraft slipped into orbit around Mars in February. Now the orbiter is preparing to release a capsule carrying the lander and rover. The capsule must plummet through the Martian atmosphere and deploy a parachute, then release the lander, which should fire downward-facing thrusters to lower itself to the Martian surface. If that all goes well, the Tianwen-1 lander will later deploy a two-track ramp for the six-wheeled rover to roll down onto Martian soil.

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A Long March 5 rocket carrying China’s Tianwen-1 mission to Mars lifts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan Province on July 23, 2020.

The landing attempt could happen as soon as Friday evening and as late as Tuesday (in Beijing, that’s Saturday to Wednesday), according to the China National Space Administration (CNSA).

Any landing attempt would occur early in the morning Beijing time, the CNSA said. That would be evening on the US East Coast. Twitter accounts that monitor China’s space programs reported that a Friday landing would happen at 7:11 p.m. ET.

Landing is “the most challenging part of the mission,” the CNSA previously said. If the Tianwen-1 lander safely touches down on Martian soil, it would be the first non-NASA Mars landing since the Soviet Union’s rover touched down in 1971. Success would make China the third nation to land on Mars.

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The surface of Mars, as photographed by the Tianwen-1 spacecraft.

The intended landing spot is in Utopia Planitia, a vast field of ancient volcanic rock that may have extensive reserves of water ice beneath its surface. If space agencies like NASA someday send humans to Mars, water would be a crucial resource because it can both sustain astronauts and get broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel. It’s unlikely that Mars-bound spaceships could carry enough water, oxygen, and hydrogen for the entire journey there and back.

China’s 530-pound, solar-powered rover is set to explore the region and study its water ice. The mission is also intended to help China prepare for a future attempt to return Martian rocks or dirt to Earth in the late 2020s.

Tianwen-1 is operating alongside two other recent arrivals on Mars: United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe, which is currently circling the red planet, and NASA’s Perseverance rover, which just began exploring Mars’ Jezero Crater.

7 minutes of terror to land on Mars

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An image released December 16, 2020 shows the Tianwen-1 probe carrying a lander and rover in a landing capsule en route to Mars.

When the time comes, China’s gumdrop-shaped landing capsule will separate from the Tianwen-1 orbiter and fall towards Mars.

The capsule must protect the robots inside as it plummets through the Martian atmosphere at temperatures exceeding 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. A supersonic parachute must deploy to slow the fall. As the lander nears its destination, thrusters have to fire downwards to help it decelerate. Then it should lower itself to the surface on a set of legs to absorb the impact.

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A prototype is lifted during a test a Mars lander in Huailai in China’s Hebei province, November 14, 2019.

As with any Mars landing, the spacecraft must conduct this entire process autonomously. Because it takes at least eight minutes for a signal to travel from Mars to Earth, and vice versa, mission controllers can’t communicate with the spacecraft in real time. When they receive the signal that the capsule is falling towards Mars, it will already be on the surface, dead or alive.

That’s why aerospace engineers refer to this part of a Mars mission as “seven minutes of terror.”

“I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that entry, descent, and landing is the most critical and most dangerous part of a mission,” Allen Chen, who leads that process for Perseverance at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a press briefing before its landing. “Success is never assured.”

Meet Zhurong: the 90-day Mars rover

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A replica of the Tianwen-1 Mars rover displayed in the National Museum in Beijing, China, March 3, 2021.

The rover is called Zhurong, named for ancient Chinese mythology’s god of fire, according to the CNSA. The process of deploying the ramp for the rover and getting it onto Mars’ surface could take more than a week, journalist Andrew Jones reported for IEEE Spectrum.

Zhurong’s name “echoes with the Chinese name of the red planet, Huoxing (meaning the planet of fire),” according to a CNSA statement. “Fire brought warmth and brightness to the ancestors of humankind, and fire lit up human civilization. Naming China’s first Mars rover after the god of fire signifies igniting the flame of China’s planetary exploration.”

Zhurong is set to explore Utopia Planitia for 90 Martian days, according to a journal article by scientists on the Tianwen-1 team.

Meanwhile, the orbiter will continue circling the red planet for one Martian year (two Earth years), relaying data to Earth and taking photos. Its main goal, according to the scientists, is to “perform a global and extensive survey of the entire planet.”

This will involve charting Mars’ geology, surveying its climate, and measuring its electromagnetic and gravitational fields.

This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published on May 13, 2021.

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For the first time, you can hear the sound of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter flying on Mars

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NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter (left) and Perseverance rover (right).

A ghostly hum has been echoing across the plains of Mars’ Jezero Crater. It’s the sound of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter spinning its rotor blades at unearthly speeds and lifting itself away from the Martian dust. For the first time, you can hear it yourself.

NASA’s Perseverance rover, which carried Ingenuity to Mars, has recorded video of each of the helicopter’s four flights thus far. But during the chopper’s fourth flight on April 30, Perseverance’s microphone was on. It captured the sound of otherworldly flight from 262 feet away.

The dominant sound in the video, below, is the rumble of wind blowing across the open plain. But if you turn the volume up high, you’ll hear the helicopter whir as its spinning blades lift it from the ground. The sound gets loudest when Ingenuity flies across the camera’s field of view.

“This is a very good surprise,” David Mimoun, the science lead for the Perseverance rover’s microphone, said in a press release. “We had carried out tests and simulations that told us the microphone would barely pick up the sounds of the helicopter, as the Mars atmosphere damps the sound propagation strongly. We have been lucky to register the helicopter at such a distance. This recording will be a gold mine for our understanding of the Martian atmosphere.”

Scientists had to tweak the original audio a bit in order to isolate the sound of the rotor blades – they reduced the volume of frequencies above and below the helicopter noise.

Ingenuity is about to start a new mission

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Ingenuity, photographed on Mars by the Perseverance rover on April 4, 2021.

Ingenuity’s rotor blades have to spin at more than 2,500 rotations per minute – roughly five times the speed of a passenger helicopter on Earth. That’s the only way the drone can gain enough traction in the thin Martian air, which has about 1% the density of Earth’s atmosphere. It’s the equivalent of flying at three times the height of Mount Everest.

For the flight in the video – Ingenuity’s fourth – the rotor blades lifted it 16 feet off the ground. Then it flew south for about 436 feet, snapping photos of the Martian surface along the way. It stopped, hovered, and flew back to its original landing spot. The drone reached a record speed of 3.5 meters per second.

The NASA team the data that Ingenuity’s cameras gathered to make a 3D map of the Martian terrain and pick out a new airfield for the helicopter. During its next flight, which is scheduled for Friday, Ingenuity is set to retrace its path to this new location then land there. It will be the helicopter’s first one-way flight. Before landing, the drone is set to climb a record 33 feet high.

NASA’s original plan was to abandon the helicopter after its fifth flight. But Ingenuity has proven so successful that the agency decided to give it a secondary mission. From its new airfield, Ingenuity will begin testing operations that the agency might want to conduct with future space helicopters.

That includes scouting and mapping, observing interesting features of Mars from the air, and exploring rough terrain that rovers can’t access.

“The ability to fly the helicopter out into terrain that the rover cannot possibly traverse and bring back scientific data – this is extremely important for future missions that could combine a rover with a reconnaissance helicopter,” Perseverance scientist Ken Farley said in a briefing on April 30.

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NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter just failed to lift off from the Martian surface, but it will try again on Friday

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Left: NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter on the surface of Mars, photographed by the Perseverance rover. Right: An illustration of Ingenuity flying.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter was scheduled to embark on its most daring flight yet on Thursday. But it failed to lift off, so NASA plans to try again on Friday.

Ingenuity made history when it flew for the first time on April 19 – a 10-foot hover that marked the first controlled, powered flight ever conducted on another planet. Since then, the 4-pound drone has completed two more flights, venturing farther and flying faster each time.

Ingenuity was in good shape after its last flight, in which it traveled roughly 330 feet out and back. It was set to attempt an even more ambitious adventure on Thursday: a 117-second flight in which the little drone was supposed to reach a record speed of 3.5 meters per second. The plan was for the helicopter to climb 16 feet into the air, fly south for about 436 feet, and snap photos of the Martian surface along the way. It was then supposed to hover for more photos, turn around, and fly back to its original spot for landing.

But Ingenuity’s rotor blades didn’t lift it up at all.

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The Perseverance rover snapped this photo of Ingenuity on the Martian surface on April 29.

The culprit is probably a software issue that first showed up during a high-speed spin test ahead of the chopper’s first flight. That test failed because Ingenuity’s flight computer was unable to transition from “preflight” to “flight” mode. Within a few days, NASA engineers resolved the issue with a quick software rewrite.

But those engineers determined that their fix would successfully transition the helicopter into flight mode only 85% of the time. The data that Ingenuity beamed back on Thursday indicated that it couldn’t get into flight mode – so it may have hit one of the 15% of instances in which the software patch doesn’t work.

“Today’s delay is in line with that expectation and does not prevent future flights,” NASA said.

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The Perseverance rover captured the Ingenuity helicopter before, left, and after it spun its rotor blades.

The helicopter is “safe and in good health,” according to the agency, and it will reattempt its fourth flight on Friday at 10:46 a.m. ET. NASA engineers expect to receive the first data from that attempt about three hours later.

The Ingenuity team has just one more week to complete two flights that would push the chopper to its limits. By the fifth and final flight, Ingenuity’s controllers plan to push the helicopter as far and fast as it can go. In the process, they expect Ingenuity to crash.

“We really want to push the rotorcraft flights to the limit and really learn and get information back from that,” MiMi Aung, the project manager for Ingenuity, said in a press briefing last week.

“That information is extremely important,” she added. “This is a pathfinder. This is about, you know, finding if there any ‘unknown unknowns’ that we can’t model. And we really want to know what the limits are. So we will be pushing the limits very deliberately.”

NASA’s space-drone dreams

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An illustration shows NASA astronauts working on the surface of Mars, with an Ingenuity-like helicopter flying to the left.

Ingenuity’s flights are experimental, meant simply to test what rotorcraft technology can do on Mars. So NASA expected that some of the attempts might fail. It’s all in the interest of gathering data to inform the development of helicopter missions on other planets, which could do all kinds of science and exploration that a rover mission can’t.

“We are aware that failure is more likely in this kind of scenario, and we’re comfortable with it because of the upside potential that success has,” NASA associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen told Insider.

Space helicopters similar to Ingenuity could someday survey difficult terrain from above, study large regions faster than a rover can, and even do reconnaissance for astronauts.

Such space drones could fly “over ravines, down canyons, up mountains,” Josh Ravich, the mechanical lead for the Ingenuity team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Insider. “Even rocky terrain is fairly inaccessible to the rovers but much more easily accessed by a rotorcraft.”

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An artist’s impression of the Dragonfly helicopter on Titan’s surface.

NASA already has one helicopter mission in development: A rotorcraft called Dragonfly is set to launch toward Saturn’s moon Titan in 2027. It aims to investigate whether that methane-rich world could host alien life.

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NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter just flew sideways over the Martian surface in its second aerial adventure

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Left: Ingenuity on the surface of Mars. Right: An illustration of Ingenuity flying.

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter successfully executed a second, more daring flight over the surface of Mars on Thursday morning.

Ingenuity made its aerial debut with a 10-foot hover on Monday – the first controlled, powered flight ever conducted on another planet. The helicopter flew higher and further on Thursday morning, completing its first sideways movement.

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An animation shows how Ingenuity flies laterally.

NASA hasn’t released more detail, but if the entire flight went according to plan, Ingenuity’s rotor blades should have spun furiously at 5:30 a.m. ET, when the sun was high on Mars.

As the rotors reached a speed 5 times faster than an Earth helicopter, they gave the chopper enough traction in the thin Martian atmosphere to lift about 16 feet off the ground.

Then Ingenuity likely tilted and flew sideways for about 7 feet, before stopping to hover. From there, it probably pointed its camera in different directions, producing stunning color photos that should soon beam back to NASA.

Finally, Ingenuity likely flew back the way it came and landed gently in the copper-colored Martian dust.

The data from the flight “looks good on altitude, lateral motion, all the turns and landing,” Bobby Braun, director of planetary science at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said on Twitter. “Another great flight.”

These flights offer just a peek at the potential of future space helicopters, which could explore parts of Mars and other planets that are inaccessible to rovers. Caves, canyons, mountains, and rocky terrains could all be the domain of a new generation of space-drone explorers.

The Ingenuity team will probably try to fly again within a few days. They have less than two weeks to complete up to three more increasingly daring aerial escapades. By the final flights, Ingenuity’s controllers plan to push the helicopter as far and fast as it will go. In the process, they expect Ingenuity will crash.

“We really want to push the rotorcraft flights to the limit and really learn and get information back from that,” MiMi Aung, the project manager for Ingenuity, said in a Monday press briefing.

“That information is extremely important,” she added. “This is a pathfinder. This is about, you know, finding if there any ‘unknown unknowns’ that we can’t model. And we really want to know what the limits are. So we will be pushing the limits, very deliberately.”

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Stunning video of the Ingenuity helicopter lifting off, flying, and landing on Mars gave its NASA team ‘goosebumps’

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The Perseverance rover captured Ingenuity’s first flight on Mars on April 19, 2021.

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter took flight on Mars for the first time on Monday – and the Perseverance rover captured the entire feat in sharp video.

The rover, which carried Ingenuity almost 300 million miles to Mars, perched on an overlook 211 feet away and watched the historic flight take place at 3:34 a.m. ET.

In the video below, you can see Ingenuity begin to spin its rotors, get them up to full speed (five times faster than an Earth helicopter’s rotors), then lift itself 10 feet above the Martian surface. After that, it hovers, pivots towards Perseverance, and lowers itself gently back into the dust.

The entire flight lasted about 40 seconds.

“Goosebumps. It looks just the way we had tested,” MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager, said as she presented the video in a post-flight press conference on Monday. “Absolutely beautiful flight. I don’t think I can ever stop watching it over and over again.”

This was the first powered, controlled flight ever conducted on another planet – NASA’s “Wright brothers moment,” as agency officials call it.

“From everything we’ve seen so far, it was a flawless flight,” Håvard Grip, the helicopter’s chief pilot, said in the briefing. “It was a gentle takeoff. At altitude it gets pushed around a little bit by the wind, but it really maintains station very well, and it stuck the landing right in the place where it was supposed to go.”

Ingenuity is a technology demonstration mission – it won’t conduct any science. However, now that NASA has shown the rotorcraft technology works, future space helicopters could explore canyons, caves, and rocky fields that are too dangerous for rovers. Mars drones could even do reconnaissance for future astronauts.

The first of up to 5 daring helicopter flights

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An artist’s concept of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter flying through the Martian skies.

Ingenuity has achieved its main goal – to prove rotorcraft technology can work on Mars – but its mission isn’t over yet. Over the next two weeks, the space drone will attempt up to four more flights, venturing higher and farther each time. The next flight could come as soon as Thursday, according to Aung.

“We really want to push the rotorcraft to the limit and really learn and get information from that,” she said.

NASA plans to power up Perseverance’s microphone to include audio in future flight videos, though NASA engineers aren’t sure what it will sound like. If all goes well, Ingenuity’s fifth and final venture could take it up to 15 feet high over 980 feet of Martian ground.

By then, though, “it would be unlikely to land safely, because we’ll start going into unsurveyed areas,” Aung said in a preflight briefing.

“If we do have a bad landing, that will be the end of mission,” she added. “The lifetime will be determined by how well it lands, pretty much.”

Once Ingenuity’s mission is over, the Perseverance rover will continue on its own epic journey: searching for fossils of microbial alien life in the ancient river delta of Jezero Crater.

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Photos from NASA’s Perseverance rover show the Ingenuity helicopter flying on Mars for the first time

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Two images from the Perseverance rover showing the Ingenuity drone in the air and back on the surface on April 19, 2021.

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter made spaceflight history when it lifted off from the Martian surface for the first time on Monday morning.

The Perseverance rover, which carried Ingenuity nearly 300 million miles to Mars, watched and filmed from a nearby overlook.

It saw the 4-pound space drone flew 10 feet high, hovered there for 30 seconds, and safely lowered itself back into the red Martian dust.

Shortly after receiving confirmation that Ingenuity had flown, NASA engineers downloaded the first images from Perseverance, which show the helicopter flying and landing.

Those two images are shown above.

Complete video of the flight should become available soon, possibly over the next few days. Ingenuity also beamed back its own photo from a black-and-white navigation camera on its belly, showing its shadow on the ground below.

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Ingenuity snapped this photo of its shadow on the ground below as it flew on Mars for the first time, April 19, 2021.

The helicopter’s color camera should have also recorded video footage throughout its flight, though NASA has yet to receive it.

This was the first powered, controlled flight ever conducted on another planet. Now that NASA has shown the technology works, future space helicopters could explore canyons, caves, and rocky fields that are too dangerous for rovers. Mars drones could even do reconnaissance for future astronauts.

Before the flight, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, told Insider that Ingenuity’s success would prove that NASA “can add an aerial dimension to discovery and exploration on Mars.”

“That aerial dimension, of course, opens up aspects of science and overall exploration that, frankly, at this moment in time are only our dreams,” he said.

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See the photo from the first-ever helicopter flight on Mars, showing the planet’s surface and the Ingenuity drone’s shadow

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Ingenuity snapped this photo of its shadow on the ground below as it flew on Mars for the first time, April 19, 2021.

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter flew on Mars for the first time early Monday, making spaceflight history and proving that aerial exploration is possible on other planets.

During the flight, it took the photo above, showing the surface of Mars and the drone’s own shadow.

As the 4-pound space drone rose 10 feet above the Martian surface, hovered for 30 seconds, and descended back down, a black-and-white navigation camera on its belly snapped the photo.

Ingenuity’s shadow is clear as day in the Mars dust.

Over the next few hours and days, NASA expects to get video footage from the drone’s color camera and from the Perseverance rover, which carried Ingenuity to Mars and filmed its first flight.

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NASA’s Mars helicopter took flight for the first time, opening the door for a new generation of space drones

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Ingenuity snapped this photo of its shadow on the ground below as it flew on Mars for the first time, April 19, 2021.

NASA’s Ingenuity space helicopter lifted off from the Martian surface, flew, and landed safely, pioneering a technology that could revolutionize the way we explore other planets.

The 4-pound drone began to spin its four carbon-fiber blades early Monday.

Spinning in opposite directions at 2,500 rotations per minute – about 5 times the speed of a helicopter on Earth – the blades gained enough traction in the thin Martian atmosphere to lift Ingenuity into the air.

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Imagery from the nearby Perseverance rover showed the Ingenuity in the air and on the ground again.

It took several hours for NASA to receive the data confirming that the mission was a success, which it reported to cheers in the control room at 6:52 a.m. ET.

The drone climbed about 10 feet above the red-dust ground and hovered there for about 30 seconds.

It was the first powered, controlled flight ever conducted on another planet.

Though 10 feet might not sound like much, hovering there is the equivalent of flying three times higher than the peak of Mount Everest, since Mars’ atmosphere has 1% the density of Earth’s.

Ingenuity’s purpose on Mars was simply to show that rotorcraft technology can work in that kind of harsh environment. Its mission is now a success.

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Left: NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter on the surface of Mars, photographed by the Perseverance rover. Right: An illustration of Ingenuity flying.

Two cameras on the bottom of Ingenuity recorded a still image, and are likely to have produced footage too, though this takes longer to reach Earth.

The Perseverance rover – which carried Ingenuity to Mars – watched the liftoff from a nearby overlook, filming as well.

Video footage from both was expected to be available within a few days of the launch, NASA officials said in advance of the flight.

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The Perseverance rover captured a “selfie” with Ingenuity before driving to an overlook to watch the helicopter fly.

Ingenuity had to fly autonomously, since it takes eight minutes for signals to travel between Earth and Mars – far too long to control the flight in real time.

So although it was the dead of night in Pasadena, California, a team of NASA engineers was awake, waiting to hear from the helicopter.

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They’d spent five years building the vehicle in preparation for this moment but couldn’t do anything to control it in real time. In fact, they didn’t hear from the helicopter until about three hours after it flew.

At 6:52 a.m. ET, mission controllers received a signal that Ingenuity had touched down in one piece. The room erupted in cheers and applause.

“We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” MiMi Aung, the project manager for Ingenuity, told the helicopter team at NASA mission control shortly after receiving the flight confirmation. “We must take a moment to celebrate.”

Ingenuity’s success means that it will attempt to conduct up to four more flights of increasing difficulty over the next month, venturing higher and further each time.

Before the flight, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, told Insider the flight would prove that NASA “can add an aerial dimension to discovery and exploration on Mars.”

“That aerial dimension, of course, opens up aspects of science and overall exploration that, frankly, at this moment in time are only our dreams,” he said.

NASA’s space-drone dreams

mars astronauts helicopter drone skitch
An illustration shows NASA astronauts working on the surface of Mars, with an Ingenuity-like helicopter flying to the left.

Space helicopters similar to Ingenuity could someday explore canyons and mountains, study large regions faster than a rover can, or even do reconnaissance for future astronauts.

These space drones could fly “over ravines, down canyons, up mountains,” Josh Ravich, mechanical lead for the Ingenuity team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Insider. “Even rocky terrain is fairly inaccessible to the rovers but much more easily accessed by a rotorcraft.”

NASA already has a helicopter mission in development: A rotorcraft called Dragonfly is set to launch toward Saturn’s moon Titan in 2027. It aims to investigate whether that methane-rich world could host alien life.

dragonfly titan helicopter nasa
An artist’s impression of the Dragonfly helicopter on Titan’s surface.

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

“Instead of a large rover carrying a small helicopter, imagine maybe a large helicopter carrying a small rover in the future,” Ravich said.

Zurbuchen said he could even imagine a “fleet” of flying robots assisting future Mars astronauts.

“I’m sure our community will look at any and all options to bring controlled flight to bear as a tool of research and exploration,” Zurbuchen said. “I’m sure they’ll think of aspects that I cannot think of right now.”

The first of up to 5 high-risk, high-reward flights

mars ingenuity helicopter rotor blades spin
The Perseverance rover captured the Ingenuity helicopter before (left) and after (right) spinning its rotor blades.

Since all of Ingenuity’s flights are demonstrations of an experimental technology, NASA engineers are fully prepared for later attempts to fail.

“We are aware that failure is more likely in this kind of scenario, and we’re comfortable with it because of the upside potential that success has,” Zurbuchen said.

But if all goes well, Ingenuity’s fifth and final venture could take it up to 15 feet high and out over 980 feet of Martian ground.

By then, though, “it would be unlikely to land safely, because we’ll start going into unsurveyed areas,” Aung said in a pre-flight briefing.

“If we do have a bad landing, that will be the end of mission,” she added. “The lifetime will be determined by how well it lands, pretty much.”

In NASA’s eyes, though, Ingenuity is already victorious, since Monday’s feat provides unprecedented data about flight on Mars that will inform future rotorcraft projects.

The worst-case scenario, Ravich said, would have been if Ingenuity didn’t fly at all.

Read the original article on Business Insider