(CNN) — This year we have followed the development of the story of a small helicopter on another planet. And, like the joy sparked by the successful landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars in February, its companion’s journey, the Ingenuity helicopter is just what we needed in 2021.

Millions of miles away, we have looked to the red planet as a distraction from our ills as we live through the second year of a pandemic. Meanwhile, two robots are achieving what was previously thought impossible on Mars.

It’s easy to project our hopes onto them, imagine them as two robot friends playing detective. His discoveries amaze us. Their successes deserve to be celebrated. And they send us stunning postcards of a rust-colored world.

Ingenuity was built on and powered by the same human trait from which it takes its name: ingenuity. Thousands of dedicated, hard-working and creative people worked for years to make it happen. When I ask scientists if they ever imagined a helicopter flying on Mars, most say no, but they rejoice, and are in awe of its existence and that it is actively flying through the Martian atmosphere.

The most detailed images of NASA’s helicopter on Mars 0:50

The journey has not been easy for the helicopter. Imagine building an experiment, a technology to be demonstrated on another planet, and not running into some problems. Time and time again, the helicopter and its team have overcome these problems to continue exploring.

The Perseverance, which is the size of an SUV, was built to survive at least two years on Mars; Ingenuity, no. The 1.8 kg helicopter was designed to perform five test flights in April.

To date, Ingenuity has made a staggering 15 flights, and has yet to abandon Perseverance. Together they are exploring Mars in an unprecedented way that could reveal whether life ever existed on the red planet. Ingenuity has been the perfect travel companion, exploring ahead and leading the way. And Perseverance doesn’t have to make the trip alone.

Survive Mars

As humans, we are intrigued by the flights and exploration of Mars, so it’s no wonder that something that ties the two together has captivated people around the world.

After Perseverance survived the infamous “seven minute terror” of the Mars landing in February, we hoped to find out if Ingenuity had survived the seven-month journey through space as well.

I have had the privilege of reporting on the rover on CNN for years; the week of Perseverance’s landing on Mars was like my Super Bowl or the Oscars. In the late afternoon of February 20, I waited, still overwhelmed by amazement at Perseverance’s success, to see if Ingenuity would send us a message.

The little helicopter called home, from its safe place hidden in the belly of the rover, to say it was okay. It was another big sigh of relief that week, but Ingenuity’s arduous journey had only just begun.

Then it had to unfold like a butterfly from its chrysalis and detach itself from the rover and its trusty power source. Perseverance could no longer protect Ingenuity from the frigid nights on Mars. The helicopter would have to do it itself.

Another sigh of relief came the first time the Ingenuity charged with its solar panel and withstood the frigid Martian nights, which can reach minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (-90 degrees Celsius).

NASA’s Perseverance Mars explorer (right) took a selfie with the Ingenuity helicopter (left) on April 6.

Perseverance and Ingenuity took a selfie together, sitting on the surface of Jezero crater, as if to say “hey, it’s not a big deal, I’m just hanging out where there used to be an ancient Martian lake.” The image still makes me smile; it’s one of my favorites this year.

Then it was time to fly for Ingenuity. And that wasn’t easy either. But the moments that make history never are.

Make the first flight

The first flight was originally scheduled for April 11, but plans changed after a scripting problem was discovered when the helicopter went through a pre-flight check system with its software.

On April 19, Ingenuity successfully completed the first powered and controlled flight on another planet and landed safely on the surface. Images and video taken by the rover, as well as aerial photos from the helicopter’s camera, showed Ingenuity in motion.

Ingenuity took this photograph while flying over the Martian surface on April 19.

My favorite is Ingenuity’s perspective of himself, watching his own shadow boldly cross the Martian landscape.

The helicopter team celebrated in their control room on Earth, jumping out of their chairs.

“Now we can say that humans have flown a helicopter on another planet,” MiMi Aung, project manager of the Ingenuity project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadenea, California, said that day. “We’ve been talking about the Wright brothers’ moment on another planet for a long time. And now, here it is.”

The Ingenuity team celebrates the first flight. MiMi Aung can be seen standing in the center.

It is appropriate that the mission also carries a piece of history. A postage stamp-sized piece of muslin fabric that covered one of the wings of the Wright brothers’ Flyer 1 is attached to a wire under the helicopter’s solar panel.

The first powered and controlled flight on Earth took place aboard the Flyer near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, when Orville and Wilbur Wright flew 36.6 meters for 12 seconds in December 1903. History was made when the Wright brothers performed four separate flights on December 17, 1903, each a little longer than the last.

Ingenuity was only supposed to fly in April. But like the Wright brothers, he didn’t give up.

Since then, Ingenuity has transmitted color images, gone from being a tech demo to an active rover rover, survived a terrifying flight anomaly, flown in changing atmospheric conditions on Mars, and conquered record-breaking flights, further, faster and more challenging than the previous one.

From dream to reality

Think about the things in your life that weigh 1.8 kilos. Maybe it’s a pet or a family heirloom.

Then imagine holding Ingenuity in your hands. Imagine you’ve invested years of your life in this object, built it, and watched it come to life, only to see it crash during testing.

But then it came true, as part of a mission heading to Mars. And it worked, and it continues to work.

A big thank you to the likes of MiMi Aung and Ingenuity Chief Engineer Bob Balaram and the rest of the Ingenuity team at NASA for working so hard to bring what was once a shelf idea to life.

Ingenuity may only weigh 1.8kg, but it has successfully carried all our hopes. It has allowed us to dream of successors capable of doing even more, and Ingenuity’s continued accomplishments spark the same joy as Perseverance’s landing.

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