First flight of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter

First flight of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter

NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter became the first aircraft in history to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet on April 19, 2019, NASA said in a press release. 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 at 10:46 UTC (06:46 EDT / 03:46 PDT).

The solar-powered helicopter first became airborne at 07:34 UTC (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 3 m (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. Additional details on the test are expected in upcoming downlinks.

Ingenuity Mars Helicopter's first flight as seen by Perseverance rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter captured this shot as it hovered over the Martian surface on April 19, 2021, during the first instance of powered, controlled flight on another planet. It used its navigation camera, which autonomously tracks the ground during flight. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

As one of NASA's technology demonstration projects, the 49 cm (19.3 inches) tall Ingenuity Mars Helicopter contains no science instruments inside its tissue-box-size fuselage. Instead, the 1.8 km (4 pounds) rotorcraft was intended to demonstrate whether future exploration of the Red Planet could include an aerial perspective.

This first flight was full of unknowns, NASA said.

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 1.2 m (4 foot) wide 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."

Featured image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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