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NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter succeeds in historic first flight

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has become the first aircraft in history to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet.

The Ingenuity team at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California confirmed the flight succeeded after receiving data from the helicopter via NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover.

“Ingenuity is the latest in a long and storied tradition of NASA projects achieving a space exploration goal once thought impossible,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk.

“The X-15 was a pathfinder for the space shuttle. Mars Pathfinder and its Sojourner rover did the same for three generations of Mars rovers. We don’t know exactly where Ingenuity will lead us, but today’s results indicate the sky – at least on Mars – may not be the limit.”

The solar-powered helicopter first became airborne at 03:34 ET – 12:33 Local Mean Solar Time (Mars time) – a time the Ingenuity team determined would have optimal energy and flight conditions.

Altimeter data indicate Ingenuity climbed to its prescribed maximum altitude of 10 feet and maintained a stable hover for 30 seconds. It then descended, touching back down on the surface of Mars after logging a total of 39.1 seconds of flight.

Ingenuity’s initial flight demonstration was autonomous, piloted by onboard guidance, navigation, and control systems running algorithms developed by the team at JPL.

Because data must be sent to and returned from the Red Planet over hundreds of millions of miles using orbiting satellites and NASA’s Deep Space Network, Ingenuity cannot be flown with a joystick, and its flight was not observable from Earth in real time.

NASA Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen announced the name for the Martian airfield on which the flight took place.

“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,” Mr Zurbuchen said.

“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.”

As one of NASA’s technology demonstration projects, the 49cm tall Ingenuity Mars Helicopter contains no science instruments inside its tissue-box-size fuselage. Instead, the 1.8kg rotorcraft is intended to demonstrate whether future exploration of the Red Planet could include an aerial perspective.

This first flight was full of unknowns. The Red Planet has a significantly lower gravity – one-third that of Earth’s – and an extremely thin atmosphere with only 1% the pressure at the surface compared to our planet.

This means there are relatively few air molecules with which Ingenuity’s two rotor blades can interact to achieve flight. The helicopter contains unique components as well as off-the-shelf-commercial parts, many from the smartphone industry, that were tested in deep space for the first time with this mission.

“The Mars Helicopter project has gone from ‘blue sky’ feasibility study to workable engineering concept to achieving the first flight on another world in a little over six years,” said Michael Watkins, director of JPL.

“That this project has achieved such a historic first is testimony to the innovation and doggedness of our team here at JPL, as well as at NASA’s Langley and Ames Research Centers, and our industry partners. It’s a shining example of the kind of technology push that thrives at JPL and fits well with NASA’s exploration goals.”

Parked about 211 feet away at Van Zyl Overlook during Ingenuity’s historic first flight, the Perseverance rover not only acted as a communications relay between the helicopter and Earth, but also chronicled the flight operations with its cameras. The pictures from the rover’s Mastcam-Z and Navcam imagers will provide additional data on the helicopter’s flight.  

“We have been thinking for so long about having our Wright brothers moment on Mars, and here it is,” said MiMi Aung, Project Manager of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at JPL.

“We will take a moment to celebrate our success and then take a cue from Orville and Wilbur regarding what to do next. History shows they got back to work – to learn as much as they could about their new aircraft – and so will we.”

Perseverance touched down with Ingenuity attached to its belly on 18th February. Deployed to the surface of Jezero Crater on 3rd April, Ingenuity is currently on the 16th sol, or Martian day, of its 30 sol flight test window.

Over the next three sols, the helicopter team will receive and analyse all data and imagery from the test and formulate a plan for the second experimental test flight, scheduled for no earlier than 22nd April. If the helicopter survives the second flight test, the Ingenuity team will consider how best to expand the flight profile.