NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter achieves historic powered flight on Mars

Technology


NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter nailed a successful debut test flight on Mars, engineers confirmed early Monday morning. The tiny spacecraft lifted itself 10 feet off the Martian surface for about 40 seconds, marking the first ever powered flight on another world. The historic demonstration opens up tantalizing possibilities for a new mode of planetary travel that could send future rotorcraft far beyond the reach of traditional rovers.

The four-pound Ingenuity helicopter lifted its tissue box-sized body around noon Mars time (around 3:30AM ET), spinning its twin rotor blades to achieve its first flight in the ultra-thin atmosphere of Mars faster than 2,500 RPM — much faster than the roughly 500 RPM needed to fly on Earth. The rotorcraft arrived on the Red Planet on February 18th clinging to the underbelly of NASA’s Perseverance rover. It was deployed from Perseverance over a month later, on April 4th, starting a 31-day clock to carry out five flight tests.

Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory broke out in cheers upon confirmation that Ingenuity’s flight attempt was a success. “Confirmed that Ingenuity has performed its first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet,” downlink engineer Michael Starch declared. “We can now say that humans beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung told NASA engineers in mission control after confirmation of the helicopter’s successful flight test.

“This gives us amazing hope for all of humanity. I couldn’t be more proud,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate NASA administrator for science tweeted. Upon successful confirmation, Zurbuchen said NASA named Ingenuity’s flight zone Wright Brothers Field, as homage to the Wright brothers’ revolutionary flight in 1903 and “in recognition of the ingenuity and innovation that continue to propel exploration.” The helicopter carries on its body a postage stamp-sized piece of the Wright brothers’ iconic plane.

A black and white image from Ingenuity’s down-facing navigation camera was the first visual confirmation of the ‘copter’s flight, showing the experimental craft’s shadow from roughly 10 feet above the surface. Minutes after confirmation, a sequence of images taken by Perseverance, watching from about 330 feet away, arrived at mission control and put Ingenuity’s flight in motion for the first time.

Ingenuity soared ten feet off the ground over Mars’ Jezero Crater.
NASA/JPL

The flight was delayed a few times from April 11th, with one delay last week requiring engineers to re-upload Ingenuity’s entire flight software after running into a glitch during pre-flight tests. The helicopter has a running track-shaped flight zone at Mars’ Jezero crater, the site of a dried out lakebed that Perseverance will scour for signs of past microbial life.

Ingenuity’s main mission is to demonstrate flight, with no objectives to explore Mars or carry out science experiments. Those jobs are reserved for Perseverance, whose primary life-hunting mission involves caching Martian soil samples that a future rover will send back to Earth as early as 2031. The rover was watching Ingenuity’s flight from a distance of roughly 330 feet away with two of its onboard cameras. Those images, scientists say, will arrive in the coming days.

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