NASA's Mars helicopter makes 1st flight on another planet

Frames from a video show Ingenuity hovering above the Martian surface

NASA made history yet again on Monday, April 19, at 03:30 EDT (07:30 UTC), by conducting the first controlled flight of an aircraft on Mars, the iconic space organization confirmed via a live video link to mission control on NASA TV.

NASA is about to find out what happened.

Altimeter data was the first indicator of mission success.

While the images collected by the helicopter during its flights will not contribute to the main mission, they could help design more robust drones. The 4-pound rotorcraft successfully hovered at 10 feet above Mars' surface for roughly 30 seconds.

The mission team will attempt four more flights after today's success.

To make the brief flight, Ingenuity's technology had to overcome Mars's super-thin atmosphere - just 1 percent the density of Earth's - which makes it more hard for the helicopters' blades, spinning at about 2,500 revolutions per minute, to gain the purchase they need to pull the vehicle into the air. For Ingenuity, the delay is even longer as it must route its communications through the Perseverance rover.

An initial analysis of the data by the project team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory indicates the flight went as expected, with Ingenuity taking off, flying to an altitude of about three meters and hovering before landing 39.1 seconds later. That's where engineers like Ravich will be waiting anxiously to hear from the helicopter. Prospects for future flights rest largely on a safe, four-point touchdown the first time. The helicopter is set to record the ground below it using two cameras on its belly (one in black and white for navigation and one in color). The video from the Perseverance rover, which looked on from 5 m (16 ft) away, will be beamed back to Earth soon.


© NASA/JPL-Caltech A Perseverance "selfie" showcases cameras on the remote-sensing mast at the end of the rover's robotic arm. The carbon-fiber, foam-filled rotors are the biggest pieces: Each pair stretches 4 feet (1.2 meters) tip to tip. Ingenuity was therefore made extremely light and given the power to turn those blades extremely fast - at over 2,500 revolutions per minute. After the onboard computer said all was well, the blades were then angled to optimally achieve lift in the thin Martian atmosphere.

If all goes according to plan, the helicopter could make as many as five flights in the coming weeks, each one more ambitious than the last. Adding to their anxiety: A software error prevented the helicopter from lifting off a week earlier and had engineers scrambling to come up with a fix. Ingenuity re-did its full-speed spin test on Friday, and the blades performed as they should during flight.

NASA's Ingenuity helicopter in flight on Mars.

Nasa itself is likening the experiment to the Wright Brothers' feat 117 years ago, paying tribute to that modest but monumental first flight by having affixed a tiny swath of wing fabric from the original Wright flyer under Ingenuity's solar panel.

But even if Ingenuity only completes this first 10-foot hover, that will be a major achievement. By then, though, "it would be unlikely to land safely, because we'll start going into unsurveyed areas", MiMi Aung, the project manager for Ingenuity, said in a briefing.

This post has been updated with new information.

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