Jubilation as NASA helicopter makes first-ever powered flight on Mars

·2-min read

The American space agency NASA successfully flew its tiny helicopter Ingenuity on Mars early on Monday, completing the first powered flight on another planet. The entire trip of three vertical metres took slightly more than 39 seconds.

Early on Monday morning, the 1.8 kilogram rotorcraft lifted off, hovered three meters above the Martian surface, then came back to rest after 39.1 seconds.

Data and images from the autonomous flight were transmitted 278 million kilometers back to Earth where they were received by NASA's array of ground antennas and processed more than three hours later.

Engineers were tensely watching their screens at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, where the mission had been designed and planned for the past six years.

They broke into applause as one of them read off a checklist of tasks Ingenuity had achieved and concluded: "Ingenuity has performed its first flight -- the first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet."

Ingenuity quickly sent back a black-and-white image from its downward pointing navigation camera, showing its bug-like shadow cast on the surface.

Then came a choppy color video from the Perseverance rover showing Ingenuity on the ground, in flight, and then once again at rest.

More images and a smoothed-out video are expected to follow.

The Wright Stuff!

"We've been talking so long about our Wright brothers' moment on Mars, and here it is," said lead engineer MiMi Aung to her team, as she doled out virtual hugs.

The first powered flight on Earth was achieved by the Wright brothers in 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

A piece of fabric from that plane has been tucked inside Ingenuity in honor of that feat.

Ingenuity traveled to Mars attached to the underside of Perseverance, which touched down on the planet on 18 February on a mission to search for signs of extraterrestrial life.

Ingenuity's goal, by contrast, is to demonstrate its technology works, and it won't contribute to Perseverance's science goals.

But it is hoped that Ingenuity can pave the way for future flyers to further our exploration of celestial bodies because they can reach areas that rovers can't, and travel much faster.

The sky is no longer the limit

"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," said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk.

The flight was challenging because of conditions vastly different from Earth's -- an atmosphere that has less than one percent the density of our own, and gravitational pull of only a third.

That made it necessary for Ingenuity's rotors to achieve around 2,500 revolutions per minute, roughly five times greater than helicopters achieve on Earth.