NASA Mars Helicopter Completes Historic First Flight on Another Planet

NASA scientists learned Monday that Ingenuity’s first flight of just under 40 seconds was a success, marking the first powered, controlled flight on another planet in human history. 

NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity captured this shot of its shadow as it hovered above the Martian surface in a human first: the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. (NASA / JPL-Caltech)

(CN) — NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter hovered 10 feet over the surface of the red planet Monday, becoming the first human aircraft to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet.

Part of NASA’s Perseverance Rover, which is currently scouring an ancient Martian lakebed for signs of extraterrestrial life, Ingenuity remained in a stable flight pattern for 39.1 seconds before making a gentle landing in the sands of Mars, scientists from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech revealed.

“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. “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.” 

The helicopter is solar powered, so scientists at NASA waited until the optimal energy levels and flight conditions combined to allow the historic flight by the 19-inch robot. Those conditions materialized at 3:34 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, or 12:33 Local Mean Solar Time on Mars. 

Ingenuity made an entirely autonomous pioneering flight, meaning a series of algorithms designed by NASA scientists allowed the flight to be controlled by the Perseverance Rover, and not by a joystick on Earth. Sending data back and forth from Mars to Earth is too prohibitive to allow real-time control by humans. 

Scientists at NASA did not discover the flight was a success until 6:46 a.m., more than 3 hours after the flight occurred. 

“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,” Zurbuchen said.

The scientist said NASA will name the airfield where Ingenuity took its maiden voyage after Orville and Wilbur Wright, two of the pioneers of aviation who made the first controlled sustained flight of a motorized airplane in 1903. 

But like the flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Ingenuity’s flight wasn’t about the flight itself as much as providing a proof of concept and provide a foundation for future innovation, scientists say. 

“It is a technology demonstration, it builds for the future,” said Mike Watkins, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a Monday press conference. “What the Ingenuity team has done is give us the third dimension, they’ve freed us from the surface now forever.”

Watkins said the push and pull of technology innovations within the sphere of planetary exploration will only continue as the space agency looks to apply lessons learned from the seven-year process it took to create the autonomous helicopter. 

“We are looking at several other missions that have technology components, much like Ingenuity, but going to other parts of the solar system,” Watkins said. 

The first controlled flight on Mars was arduous from an engineering standpoint, as Mars has less gravity than Earth with a wafer-thin atmosphere that generates 1% of the air pressure at the surface of Mars when compared to Earth. Thus there are relatively fewer air molecules that Ingenuity can use to achieve flight. But researchers took these discrepancies into account and made adjustments to the tiny helicopter, in some cases using smartphone technology to prove such a flight was possible. 

“We have been thinking for so long about having our Wright brothers moment on Mars, and here it is,” said MiMi Aung, project manager of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at JPL. “We will take a moment to celebrate our success and then take a cue from Orville and Wilbur regarding what to do next. History shows they got back to work – to learn as much as they could about their new aircraft – and so will we.”

Ingenuity’s first flight, originally set for April 11, was delayed by a week due to software problems. With only two weeks left in its 30-sol (31-Earth day) flight window, NASA hopes to make at least one and up to four more flights to test the capabilities of the helicopter — including a flight of 320 feet round trip.

After that, Perseverance must get on with its $2.7 billion main mission and NASA’s $85 million Ingenuity will become an awe-inspiring chapter in human aviation history.

Perseverance landed in Mars’ Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, after a voyage of nearly 300 million miles. Astronomers believe the crater had been a lake nearly 30 million years ago. Perseverance’s main mission is to pick up soil samples in the hopes of finding biosignatures — signs of life in the form of fossils of small organisms. 

The mission will also mark a second first for humanity: Perseverance will collect and deposit Martian soil samples that will be picked up by future Mars missions — the first time human engineering will cart soil and rocks from another planet to Earth.

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