NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter became the first aircraft in history to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet on Monday. 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 5:46 a.m. CT.
“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 2:34 a.m. CT – 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 (3 meters) 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.
Because of the distance between Mars and Earth, Ingenuity cannot be flown by a joystick like a military drone. Ingenuity’s initial flight demonstration was autonomous. The small aircraft is piloted by onboard guidance, navigation and control systems running algorithms developed by the team at JPL. That distance also means that Ingenuity’s 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,” 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 19.3-inch-tall Ingenuity Mars Helicopter contains no science instruments inside its tissue-box-size fuselage. Instead, the four-pound rotorcraft is intended to demonstrate whether future exploration of the Red Planet could include an aerial perspective. If successful, future Mars missions may include larger, more capable autonomous aircraft.
This first flight was full of unknowns. Mars has just one-third of Earth’s gravity and a much thinner atmosphere with only 1 percent of the pressure at the surface compared to our planet. This means there are relatively few air molecules with which Ingenuity’s two 4-foot-wide (1.2-meter-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.”
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. Unlike previous rovers, most of Perseverance’s cameras will transmit color images back to NASA.
“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 Feb. 18. Deployed to the surface of Jezero Crater on April 3, Ingenuity is currently on the 16th sol, or Martian day, of its 30-sol (31-Earth day) flight test window.
JPL built Ingenuity and manages the technology demonstration project for NASA. It is supported by NASA’s Science, Aeronautics, and Space Technology mission directorates. The agency’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley and Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, provided significant flight performance analysis and technical assistance during Ingenuity’s development.
NASA is a major employer in Alabama. The Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville is a major contributor to NASA’s space flight program