NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter makes historic first flight on Mars

On April 19, 2021, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter became the first aircraft in history to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet – on Mars.

The Ingenuity team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California confirmed the successful flight after receiving the relevant flight data from the helicopter via the agency’s Perseverance rover at 6:46am EDT on April 19.

An enthusiastic Steve Jurczyk, acting NASA Administrator, said: “Ingenuity is the latest in a long and storied tradition of NASA projects achieving a space exploration goal once thought impossible.”

The solar-powered helicopter first became airborne at 3:34am EDT – 12:33 Local Mean Solar Time (Mars time) – a time the Ingenuity team determined would have optimal energy and flight conditions.

Stable hover

Altimeter data indicate Ingenuity climbed to its prescribed maximum altitude of three metres and maintained a stable hover for 30 seconds.

It then descended, touching back down on the Martina surface after logging a total of 39.1 seconds of flight.

Additional details on the test are expected in upcoming downlinks from Perseverance.

Ingenuity’s initial flight demonstration was autonomous – piloted by onboard guidance, navigation, and control systems running algorithms developed by the team at JPL.

Because data must be sent to and returned from the Red Planet over hundreds of millions of miles using orbiting satellites and NASA’s Deep Space Network, Ingenuity cannot be flown with a joystick, and its flight was not observable from Earth in real time.

A technology demonstration project for NASA, the 49cm-tall Ingenuity Helicopter contains no science instruments inside its tissue-box-size fuselage.

1.8kg helicopter

Instead, the 1.8kg rotorcraft is intended to demonstrate whether future exploration of the Red Planet could include an aerial perspective.

This first flight was full of unknowns for NASA and JPL.

Mars has a significantly lower gravity – one-third that of Earth’s – and an extremely thin atmosphere with only 1% the pressure at the surface compared to Earth.

This means there are relatively few air molecules with which Ingenuity’s two 1.2-metre-wide rotor blades can interact to achieve flight.

The helicopter contains unique components, as well as off-the-shelf-commercial parts – many from the smartphone industry – that were tested in deep space for the first time with this mission.

Parked about 64.3 metres away at Van Zyl Overlook during Ingenuity’s historic first flight, the Perseverance rover not only acted as a communications relay between Ingenuity and Earth, but also chronicled the flight operations with its cameras.

The pictures from the rover’s Mastcam-Z and Navcam imagers will provide additional data on the helicopter’s flight.

Perseverance landed on Mars with Ingenuity attached to its belly on February 18, 2021, days after the UAE’s Hope probe reached Mars’ orbit.

Deployed to the surface of Jezero Crater on April 3, Ingenuity is currently on the 16th sol, or Martian day, of its 30-sol (31-Earth day) flight test window.

Over the next three sols, the helicopter team will receive and analyse all data and imagery from the initial test flight and formulate a plan for the second experimental test flight, scheduled for no earlier than April 22, 2021.

If the helicopter survives the second flight test, the Ingenuity team will consider how best to expand the rotorcraft’s flight profile.

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