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Tissue Box-Sized Helicopter Takes Flight On Mars


History was made on Mars today.


SHAPIRO: That sound from Earth as a four-pound helicopter lifted off from the surface of the Red Planet, climbed 10 feet and then landed gently and safely 39 seconds later. Never before has a powered aircraft flown on another planet.


MIMI AUNG: We have done it.

SHAPIRO: That's NASA project manager MiMi Aung. NPR's Joe Palca has been following today's events.

Hi, Joe.


SHAPIRO: Such joy in that control room. How did the team working on this react?

PALCA: Oh, they were - they were just so excited. I mean, it's a small team, very tightly knit. You know, this was, by NASA standards, a small project, only $80 million. And they were just delighted to see this thing work and perfectly, it seems.

SHAPIRO: Take us through what happened and why it's such an accomplishment.

PALCA: Well, this actually took place at 3:30 in the morning Eastern time, which was noon on Mars. And NPR hasn't put a correspondent in Jezero Crater on Mars. So like all the rest of us...

SHAPIRO: You're first in line.

PALCA: ...On Earth, we had to wait until the signal came down to Earth, and that was about three hours later. And they actually watched as the telemetry came in telling them how high it went, how fast it went, how it was buffeted by the wind and things like that.

SHAPIRO: And there was actually video, right?

PALCA: Oh, yes. I mean, that came back a few hours later. The rover, which was carrying the helicopter up to Mars - the rover was parked about 60 or 70 yards away. And it took pictures as this rose up into the air, hovered there and came back down. I mean, you know, they've simulated this hundreds or maybe thousands of time on Earth. But the people on the team just said to see it was unbelievable. And it's Mars. It's all red there. It's crazy.

SHAPIRO: And this flight came about 117 years after the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. Tell us how NASA marked that.

PALCA: Well, this was an interesting story. So someone in the NASA JPL press office thought, wouldn't it be nice to take a small piece of the first Wright Brothers flight aircraft on this particular flight? And they looked around, and they found that a museum in Dayton had a small piece that they were willing to part with. And so they tested it and made sure it wouldn't contaminate Mars if they sent it to Mars, taped it to the bottom of the solar panel on the helicopter. And it flew with the helicopter today.

SHAPIRO: Helicopters on Earth depend on the thickness of the atmosphere, and Mars has such a thin atmosphere. How did this actually get off the ground?

PALCA: Yeah, it's a tricky problem, and it's something that aerospace engineers have been struggling with. I spoke with Moble Benedict. He's an aerospace engineer at Texas A&M University.

MOBLE BENEDICT: So the way to actually fly on Mars is to make your rotor big.

PALCA: Yeah. And by making the rotor big, you compensate for some of the loss of density in the atmosphere, which they have. And what you do in order to lift - it's like pretty much any helicopter - is you adjust the angle of the blades instead of changing the speed of the rotors. And so it actually takes you up off the ground. And obviously, it worked. Now, the next thing to do is they're going to try a little - fly a little higher than 10 feet. They're actually going to turn sideways. This one just went up straight up and down, but the next one's going to go from side to side. And we'll see. It's going to take more pictures from - of the ground, and it'll be amazing to see.

SHAPIRO: NPR science correspondent Joe Palca.

Thanks a lot.

PALCA: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.

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