NASA pulled off a Wright Brothers moment on Mars early today by successfully flying the tiny Ingenuity helicopter for approximately 40 seconds.
“We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s lead engineer, speaking to her colleagues gathered at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California to execute and monitor the flight.
The solar-powered helicopter took advantage of the midday Sun on Mars and took flight at 12:33 Local Mean Solar Time (Mars time), 3:34 a.m. EDT (12:34 a.m. PDT) back on Earth. Altimeter data relayed back to Earth via the Perseverance rover indicated Ingenuity climbed to a 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. This is the first ever powered, controlled flight on another world.
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Perseverance was able to take images and video of the flight, and NASA says additional details on the test and more images are expected in upcoming downlinks.
Ingenuity’s downward facing navigation camera captured the lead image, showing the helicopter’s shadow on the surface of Mars.
The flight came after a one-week delay, after tests indicated an issue with the flight computer as it transitioned from the ‘Pre-Flight’ to ‘Flight’ mode. New software was uploaded to the helicopter, and tested over the weekend.
Today’s flight demonstration was autonomous – piloted by onboard guidance, navigation, and control systems running algorithms developed by the team at JPL. NASA explained that Ingenuity can’t be flown with a joystick like drones on Earth, since Mars is so far away, there is an approximate 12-minute delay of when data sent from Earth is received on Mars, and another 12 minutes to receive data back again.
Ingenuity stands about 48 cm (19 inches) and has counter-rotating carbon-fiber blades that span about 1.2 meters (4 feet). The blades spun at more than 2,400 revolutions per minute to give the helicopter enough lift in the thin Martian atmosphere.
“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,” said NASA Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen. “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.”
Zurbuchen said as an homage to the two innovative bicycle makers from Ohio, this first “airfield” on another world will now be known as Wright Brothers Field.
Ingenuity came to Mars along with the Perseverance rover, nestled underneath the belly of the rover when it landed on Mars in February 2021.