NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter Has Successful First Flight

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The first picture from Ingenuity taken 10 feet in the air
The first picture from the Ingenuity helicopter taken ten feet above the surface of Mars. Image: NASA / JPL

The NASA ingenuity helicopter had a successful debut flight on Mars, NASA engineers have confirmed. The helicopter hovered some 10 feet over the Martian surface for 39 seconds, marking the first powered flight on another planet in human history. The demonstration opens up many possibilities for planetary travel, including sending rotorcraft beyond the reach of standard rovers. 


Ingenuity lifted its little four-pound body at 12:34PM Mars Time (or 3:34AM EST on Earth). The rotor blades span and sent the little craft into the ultrathin Mars atmosphere. The blades rotate at a rapid 2,500RPM, five-times faster than the 500RPM helicopters need to fly here on Earth. The helicopter hovered for around 30 seconds before coming back down to solid ground, accomplishing a fully autonomous 39.1 second flight. 


The helicopter landed on Mars on February 18th, stuck to the Perseverance rover. Perseverance deployed the craft a month later on April 4th, beginning a 31-day mission to conduct five flight tests. The Monday flight sets the stage for more ambitious flights in the coming weeks. 


Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory exploded into cheers upon confirmation Ingenuity had completed its flight. “We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” said Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung, confirming the successful flight test. 


“This gives us amazing hope for all of humanity. I couldn’t be more proud,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate NASA administrator for science, tweeted. The flight zone for Ingenuity is named after the Wright Brothers – Wright Brothers’ Field. The rotorcraft has a tiny postage-stamp-sized piece of the original Wright Brothers’ plane, taking to the Red Planet. 


Ingenuity is equipped with a down-facing camera. The camera took a black and white photo to confirm the flight was a success. The photo shows Ingenuity’s shadow as it looks from ten feet above the Martian surface. The Perseverance rover also captured several images of the flight from roughly 211 meters away. These images captured Ingenuity in flight for the first time. 


The flight saw a handful of delays, including one daly just last week when engineers had to reupload the flight software after running into a glitch. The helicopter has a flight zone at the Jezero Crater on Mars. Jazero Crater is a dried-out lakebed that Perseverance will analyze for signs of ancient microbial life. 


Engineers will analyze all the data from the test flight to set the parameters for the other upcoming flights. The next is scheduled for April 22nd and will see Ingenuity reach further heights and travel across the flight zone rather than just upwards. 

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