Science & Tech

NASA’s Mars helicopter makes history with first flight on red planet

NASA’s Mars helicopter has made history by becoming the first aircraft to demonstrate controlled, powered flight on another planet.

Weighing a mere 4 pounds and standing just 19 inches high, the diminutive Ingenuity helicopter took off from the Martian surface early on Monday, April 19, with NASA receiving data confirming the flight shortly after 3.50 a.m. ET.

Choppy video data (top) captured by the Perseverance rover and beamed nearly 180 million miles back to Earth showed Ingenuity in flight. If it stuck to its flight plan, the drone-like aircraft will have hovered three meters above the ground for about 30 seconds before landing again.

Here’s the moment the data confirming the flight came through to the mission team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California:

Subsequent flights in the coming weeks are expected to be far more ambitious, involving higher altitudes and distances of up to 300 meters.

The Martian atmosphere is about 100 times thinner than Earth’s, making it much harder for a rotorcraft to achieve flight there. To get off the ground, Ingenuity had to spin its four carbon-fiber blades — arranged into two rotors — at 2,500 revolutions per minute (rpm), significantly faster than the approximately 500 rpm used by helicopters on Earth.

Ingenuity arrived on Mars in spectacular fashion in February 2021, attached to the belly of the Perseverance rover. In early April, Perseverance gently lowered the helicopter to the ground in preparation for its maiden flight.

Ingenuity’s main mission goal is to demonstrate that it’s possible to fly a rotorcraft in Mars’ super-thin atmosphere, and also that it can remain fully operational despite the planet’s extremely cold temperatures.

JPL will be delighted with Ingenuity’s first effort, though now it will be keen to demonstrate that the vehicle is capable of longer, more complex flights that test its full capabilities.

Ingenuity’s flight tests will pave the way for more advanced aircraft designs that will be capable of surveying the Martian surface from a close distance, unhindered by terrain, as well as collecting data for mapping routes for future Mars rovers. Additionally, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter will likely be used as the basis for more sophisticated flying machines that could one day be used to explore other places in our solar system.

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