NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter takes flight on MarsPeter Brown | April 20, 2021
NASA confirmed that its Ingenuity Mars helicopter became the first aircraft in history to take flight on another planet.
The solar-powered helicopter went airborne at 3:34 a.m. (EDT) after NASA determined the aircraft would have optimal energy and flight conditions. Altimeter data indicated that the helicopter climbed to a height of 10 ft and maintained a stable hover for about 30 seconds, then descended, touching back down on the Martian surface after logging about 39 seconds of total flight time.
“Now, 117 years after the Wright brothers succeeded in making the first flight on our planet, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has succeeded in performing this amazing feat on another world,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science. “While these two iconic moments in aviation history may be separated by time and 173 million miles of space, they now will forever be linked. As an homage to the two innovative bicycle makers from Dayton, this first of many airfields on other worlds will now be known as Wright Brothers Field, in recognition of the ingenuity and innovation that continue to propel exploration.”
The Martian helicopter flight was autonomous, piloted by onboard guidance, navigation and control systems running algorithms developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. As data needs to be sent and returned from the red planet over hundreds of millions of miles using orbiting satellites and NASA’s Deep Space Network, Ingenuity cannot be flowing with a joystick and the flight is not observable from Earth in real time.
Ingenuity contains no science instruments inside the fuselage, instead the 4 lb rotorcraft is designed to demonstrate if future exploration of Mars could be done using aircraft.
As this was the first flight on another planet, the Ingenuity flight was full of unknowns. Mars has lower gravity than Earth and a thin atmosphere with only 1% the pressure at the surface compared to Earth. This means there are fewer molecules that the helicopter can interact with to achieve flight.
The Perseverance rover acted as the communications relay between the helicopter and Earth but the flight was also chronicled through its cameras. Photos form the rover’s Mastcam-Z and Navcam will provide additional data on the flight of Ingenuity.
NASA began prepping for the first flight in March after Perseverance touched down on the red planet on Feb. 18 with Ingenuity attached to its belly. The rover was deployed to the surface of the Jezero Crater. The data from the first flight of Ingenuity will be received later this week. If the helicopter survives the second flight test, the NASA team will consider how best to expand the flight profile.