NASA celebrates first historic helicopter flight on Mars

A navigation camera on NASA’s Perseverance rover captured this view of the Ingenuity helicopter’s historic flight Monday. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

An automated mini-helicopter driven by two fast-spinning, counter-rotating rotors took off from the surface of Mars, hovered for 30 seconds, then successfully landed Monday to complete the historic first powered flight of an aircraft on another planet.

NASA officials received telemetry from Mars confirming the successful test flight early Monday. Engineers gathered at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory broke out in applause as data and imagery showed the Ingenuity helicopter accomplished its first flight as designed.

Håvard Grip, NASA’s chief pilot for the Ingenuity helicopter, analyzed the data stream from the rotorcraft and announced the drone had completed its historic hop at 6:52 a.m. EDT (1052 GMT).

“Ingenuity is reporting having performed spin up, takeoff, climb, hover, descent, landing, touchdown, and spin down,” Grip said. “Altimeter data confirms that Ingenuity has performed its first flight, the first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet.”

The helicopter’s ascent into the atmosphere of Mars came more than 117 years after the Wright Brothers accomplished the first airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and nearly a century after the first helicopters flew on Earth.

“We can now say human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” said MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity project manager. “We’ve been talking so long about our Wright Brothers’ moment on Mars, and here it is.

The flight actually occurred more than three hours earlier, at around 3:34 a.m. EDT (0734 GMT), NASA said in a press release. As expected, it took about three hours for signals from Ingenuity to reach Earth after relays through NASA’s Perseverance rover, then through the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter flying several hundred miles over the Red Planet.

Then the signals raced across the solar system at the speed of light, covering the 178 million-mile (287 million-kilometer) gulf between Mars and Earth in about 16 minutes.

“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 in a statement. “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.”

A black-and-white camera on the Ingenuity helicopter recorded this view of the rotorcraft’s ethereal shadow on the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Ingenuity helicopter’s carbon-composite rotor blades spun up to near 2,500 rpm to climb off the Martian surface, must faster than helicopter blades need to spin to fly in Earth’s atmosphere. That’s because the atmosphere of Mars is less than 1% the thickness of Earth’s at sea level.

The blades span about 4 feet (1.2 meters) in diameter, generating lift to overcome Martian gravity, which is about 38% the strength of that on Earth. The 1.6-foot-tall (49-centimeter) rotorcraft was supposed to climb to an altitude of about 10 feet (3 meters), momentarily hover there, then perform a turn before descending back to a touchdown on its four carbon fiber legs.

An early assessment of flight data from Ingenuity indicated it reached its 10-foot target altitude and maintained a stable hover for 30 seconds. The entire flight lasted 39.1 seconds, close to the predicted duration.

Moments after the data confirmed the successful flight, ground teams at JPL in Pasadena, California, received the first images from the hop.

One black-and-white picture from a down-looking camera on the helicopter showed Ingenuity’s shadow cast on the Martian surface. The flight occurred around midday local time at Jezero Crater on Mars.

Sharp-eyed cameras on the Perseverance rover, which carried the Ingenuity helicopter to the Red Planet, also recorded short video clips of the rotorcraft’s flight. NASA showed one of the videos on the agency’s television broadcast of the test flight’s data downlink early Monday.

Perseverance observed the flight from a perch about 200 feet (60 meters) from the helicopter’s flight zone, which NASA has named “Wright Brothers Field.”

NASA officials plan to have a press conference at 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT) Monday to discuss more details about Ingenuity’s flight. A side-facing color camera on the Ingenuity helicopter was also expected to capture views the Martian horizon during the hop, and a microphone on the Perseverance rover was programmed to try recording the sound of the rotorcraft’s rotors.

That data is expected to come back to Earth later Monday, and on subsequent days.

The helicopter’s $85 million technology demonstration mission will pave the way for aerial scouts that NASA could dispatch across the solar system. Future airborne drones could provide reconnaissance for rovers and astronauts exploring the surfaces of other worlds, and they could reach areas inaccessible to other vehicles, according to NASA officials.

NASA has selected a robotic mission named Dragonfly to explore Saturn’s largest moon Titan. But Titan has a much thicker atmosphere than Mars, which eases the difficulty of rotor-driven flight.

“If we can scout and scientifically survey Mars from the air with a thin atmosphere, we can certainly do the same in a number of other destinations across the solar system, like Titan or Venus,” said Bobby Braun, director of planetary science at JPL. “The future of powered flight in space exploration is solid and strong.”

Mission managers plan five Ingenuity test flights, trying more daring maneuvers on each hop. Future flights will reach a higher altitude of about 16 feet (5 meters), traversing downrange along a pre-selected flight zone, before returning to its “helipad” for landing.

The 16-foot limit for Ingenuity’s flights is largely driven by the performance limitations of a laser rangefinder on-board that measures the helicopter’s distance to the ground, Grip said in a press briefing last month.

“History does tell us that soon after that first flight, Wilbur and Orville did go right back to work,” Aung said in a speech to the Ingenuity team after Monday’s flight. “They flew three more flights that day, higher and farther than the first one. Like the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, we know our time to make a difference at Jezero Crater is not yet over. This is just the first great flight.

“We must take a moment to celebrate this moment,” she said. “Take that moment, and then after that let’s get back to work, and more flights!”

Next month, Ingenuity’s demonstrations will end to allow the Perseverance rover to continue its primary mission. The $2.7 billion mission is designed to explore an ancient dried-up river delta a few miles from where the rover landed on Mars on Feb. 18.

Perseverance will gather rock samples for return to Earth on a future mission due to arrive on Mars in the late 2020s. Scientists will analyze the specimens — the first pristine samples ever returned from Mars — in search of signs of ancient life.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.