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 39 seconds, marking the first 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 at 12:34PM Mars time (3:34AM ET, Earth time), spinning its twin rotor blades to achieve its first flight in the ultrathin atmosphere of Mars. Those blades spun faster than 2,500 rpm — much faster than the roughly 500 rpm helicopters need to fly on Earth. The craft hovered for about 30 seconds above the surface before descending for touchdown, concluding a fully autonomous 39.1-second flight test, NASA said.
The rotorcraft arrived on the Red Planet, 173 million miles from Earth, 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. Monday’s successful flight sets the stage for more ambitious attempts in the next few weeks.
Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) broke out in cheers upon confirmation that Ingenuity’s flight attempt appeared flawless. “Confirmed, that Ingenuity has performed its first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet,” Ingenuity chief pilot Håvard Grip declared, prompting applause inside JPL Mission Control. “We can now say that humans beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung told NASA engineers in the room 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. With Ingenuity, Zurbuchen said during a post-flight press conference, NASA’s engineering teams were able to find “that right line between crazy and innovative.”
Just after confirmation of success, Zurbuchen said NASA named Ingenuity’s flight zone Wright Brothers Field, as a nod 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 flight confirmation, a sequence of images taken by Perseverance, watching from about 211 feet away, arrived at Mission Control and put Ingenuity’s flight in motion for the first time.
The flight was delayed a few times from April 11th, with one delay last week requiring engineers to reupload Ingenuity’s entire flight software after running into a glitch during preflight 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.
JPL director Michael Watkins said Ingenuity’s flight unlocked “the third dimension” of traveling on other worlds. “It freed us from the surface forever in planetary exploration,” he told reporters in a press conference. Ingenuity’s successful flight demonstration, nailing its midair pivot and hovering in place as planned, decisively adds powered rotorcraft to NASA’s exploration toolbox for future interplanetary missions.
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.
Engineers will analyze loads of data from Ingenuity’s first flight to set the parameters for its next four flights in the coming weeks, with the second one scheduled for April 22nd, NASA said. For those tests, Ingenuity will soar higher and travel across its flight zone at increasing speeds — though exactly how high and how fast is up for debate. During the press conference, Grip was modest about pushing Ingenuity to fly as high as possible: “probably ten meters, or a little bit more, but not much more than that.” That’s how high Ingenuity’s rangefinder — the laser that senses its altitude — can detect the ground.
“Like the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, we know that our time to make a difference at Jezero Crater, Mars is not yet over,” Aung told engineers in Mission Control just after flight confirmation. “This is just the first great flight.”