Ingenuity Mars Helicopter makes historic first flight

2 min read

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has become the first aircraft to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet.

According to NASA, the Ingenuity team at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California confirmed the flight after receiving data from the helicopter via NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover today (April 19, 2021) at 0646 EDT (1146 BST).

Ingenuity gears up for first Mars flight after technical delay

Mars Perseverance: the technology behind the rover on a mission

Mars 2020 mission gears up for a red planet return

“Ingenuity is the latest in a long and storied tradition of NASA projects achieving a space exploration goal once thought impossible,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk. “The X-15 was a pathfinder for the space shuttle. Mars Pathfinder and its Sojourner rover did the same for three generations of Mars rovers. 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.”

The solar-powered helicopter first became airborne at 0334 EDT (0834 BST) with altimeter data indicating that Ingenuity climbed to its prescribed maximum altitude of 3m and maintained a stable hover for 30 seconds. It then descended, touching back down on the surface of Mars after logging a total of 39.1 seconds of flight. Additional details on the test are expected in upcoming downlinks.

Ingenuity Mars Helicopter
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter captured this shot as it hovered over the Martian surface on April 19, 2021, during the first instance of powered, controlled flight on another planet. It used its navigation camera, which autonomously tracks the ground during flight.(Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Ingenuity’s initial flight demonstration was piloted by onboard guidance, navigation, and control systems running algorithms developed at JPL. Data has to be sent to and returned from the Red Planet over hundreds of millions of miles using orbiting satellites and NASA’s Deep Space Network. Consequently, Ingenuity cannot be flown with a joystick, and its flight was not observable from Earth in real time.

The 49cm tall technology demonstration project does not contain science instruments. Instead, the 1.8kg rotorcraft is intended to demonstrate whether future exploration of the Red Planet could include an aerial perspective in an environment with one-third of Earth’s gravity and an extremely thin atmosphere with only one per cent the pressure at the surface compared to our planet.

“The Mars Helicopter project has gone from ‘blue sky’ feasibility study to workable engineering concept to achieving the first flight on another world in a little over six years,” said Michael Watkins, director of JPL. “That this project has achieved such a historic first is testimony to the innovation and doggedness of our team here at JPL, as well as at NASA’s Langley and Ames Research Centers, and our industry partners.”