Science

NASA’s Ingenuity craft makes first ever helicopter flight on Mars

Ingenuity took a picture of its own shadow when hovering

NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has completed its first flight on Mars, making it the first vehicle to attempt powered flight on another planet.

“We’ve been talking so long about our Wright brothers moment on Mars, and here it is,” said MiMi Aung at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, speaking from mission control just after the flight.

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Early images from NASA shot from the Perseverance rover show Ingenuity taking off on its short first test. The craft rose to around 3 metres, pivoted towards the rover and landed after about 30 seconds.

“To see it now finally happen on Mars, and happen exactly the way that we imagined it, is just a really incredible feeling,” said Håvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot, during a later press conference. Video footage taken by the Perseverance rover shows a smooth takeoff and landing that looked almost exactly the same as the craft did during testing, Grip said.

“We’ve sent five rovers to Mars and now we have an aerial dimension. We can do more science with it. The helicopter can go into areas where a rover can’t,” said NASA mechanical engineer Taryn Bailey.

Ingenuity travelled to Mars beneath the Perseverance rover, which landed on 18 February. The helicopter was then dropped onto the surface of Mars and Perseverance drove off to give it room to prepare for flight.

The helicopter is around half a metre tall and weighs 1.8 kilograms. Its two rotors spin in opposite directions, which negates the need for the tail rotor found on a traditional helicopter. They spin at around 2500 revolutions per minute (rpm), about five times faster than on rotor aircraft on Earth because of the thin atmosphere on Mars.

“Flying on Mars is very difficult, it’s less than 1 per cent of Earth’s atmosphere and that means we have to have something lightweight. Generating enough lift involves having high rpm,” said Bailey.

Not only did the flight go smoothly, Ingenuity seems to be “extremely healthy” now, said Bob Balaram, the helicopter’s chief engineer, in a press conference. The flight shook off some of the dust that had gathered on top of Ingenuity, and it is now generating more solar power than it was before liftoff.

“Beyond this first flight, over the next coming days we have up to 4 flights planned, increasingly difficult flights, challenging flights, and we are going to continually push all the way to the limits of this rotorcraft,” said Aung. “We will be pushing the envelope and really stretching and understanding how well we can fly.”

The next flight could occur as soon as 22 April, she said. At that point, the helicopter will attempt to rise 5 metres up and fly 2 metres to the side before returning to its original location and landing. Then, in the third flight, the goal is to fly 50 metres away from its liftoff site before returning, and to do so at a higher speed than the previous flights.

Aung said Ingenuity’s final flight could end in the helicopter smashing down to the Martian surface.

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