Ingenuity Mars ‘copter makes historic first flight on red planet

A camera aboard the Ingenuity helicopter captures an image of the drone’s shadow on the surface of Mars. The small rotorcraft climbed to an altitude of 3 metres (10 feet) for its initial test flight. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter pulled off the first powered takeoff and landing in the atmosphere of another world 19 April, a 40-second test flight that represented a “Wright brothers moment” on the red planet.

After overcoming a subtle timing glitch in the helicopter’s flight control software, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory stood by in anxious anticipation as Ingenuity carried out its maiden flight, waiting for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to pass over Jezero Crater three hours later to rely telemetry back to Earth.

Finally, the data flowed in and “pilot” Håvard Grip was able to confirm rotor “spin up, take off, climb, hover, descent, landing, touchdown and spin down.”

“Altimeter data confirms that Ingenuity has performed the first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet!” he said amid cheers and applause.

Data from Ingenuity confirmed the helicopter climbed, as programmed, to an altitude of about 3 metres before returning to its launch site. Engineers said the test was virtually flawless. Image: NASA/JPL

A short video shot by a camera aboard the Perseverance rover showed the small helicopter lifting off, hovering and setting down. A black-and-white still image, looking straight down from Ingenuity, showed the helicopter’s shadow on the dusty surface of Mars.

“We can now say human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity project manager, told her team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We’ve been talking so long about our Wright brothers moment on Mars, and here it is.

“We don’t know from history what Orville and Wilbur did after their first successful flight. I imagine the two brothers hugged each other. Well, I’m hugging you virtually right now.”

Engineers erupt in cheers and applause as data flows in from Mars confirming a successful test flight by the Ingenuity helicopter. Project manager MiMi Aung, standing under JPL’s motto – “Dare Mighty Things” – raising her fists in triumph. Image: NASA/JPL

Ingenuity was added to Perseverance’s mission solely to determine the feasibility of flight in the ultra-thin atmosphere of Mars. Four more test flights are planned over the next two weeks, each one more ambitious than the last. If all goes well, the helicopter will soar to 10 metres (33 feet) or so and range several hundred metres or more from its starting point.

“We want to push it to the limit,” Aung said. “We want to push against the wind, we want to push against the speed and ultimately, we expect the helicopter will meet its limit. But that information is extremely important. … We really want to know what the limits are.”