Ingenuity: NASA Makes History Again With First Controlled Flight on Mars

NASA confirms that its Ingenuity helicopter conducted the first-ever controlled flight on Mars.
Chris Young
NASA's Ingenuity helicopterNASA

NASA made history yet again on Monday, April 19, at 03:34 EDT (07:34 UTC), by conducting the first controlled flight of an aircraft on Mars, the iconic space organization confirmed via a live video link to mission control on NASA TV.

Thanks to onboard data and images sent via powerful X-band transmissions, NASA confirmed that its miniature helicopter, Ingenuity, slowly rose to an altitude of three meters (9.8 feet) above the surface of Mars, hovered for 30 seconds, and then descended to land on its four legs.

Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory broke into cheers and applause as downlink engineer Michael Starch confirmed that "Ingenuity has performed its first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet."

First Mars flight images take four hours to reach Earth

The historic moment occurred at 03:34 EDT (07:34 UTC) though data and images, beamed from the Mars Perseverance rover to NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN), took approximately four hours to reach mission control in their entirety.

In turn, these images were first revealed to the world via a live stream video (embedded below) from NASA TV.

Images and video, revealed during the livestream, show the brief moments in which the Ingenuity helicopter propelled itself autonomously above the surface of Mars, before descending in a straight line for a controlled landing.

Ingenuity: NASA Makes History Again With First Controlled Flight on Mars
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter took a picture of its own shadow while hovering over the planet's surface. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The first visual indication that the Ingenuity helicopter's test flight was a success came in the form of an altimeter data graph (pictured below), the plateau on the graph indicating the moments in which the aircraft was hovering above the red planet.

The altimeter data showed a total of 39.1 seconds of flight, 30 of which were spent hovering.

Ingenuity: NASA Makes History Again With First Controlled Flight on Mars
Altimeter data provided the first indicator of mission success. Source: NASA/YouTube

Shortly afterwards, an image was revealed of the Ingenuity helicopter's shadow, taken by the aircraft whilst hovering. Video was then downloaded and played at mission control, showing the flight from the perspective of the Mars Perseverance rover.

Ingenuity's custom rotor design propels NASA to new heights

As Mars has only one percent the atmosphere of Earth, the Ingenuity helicopter utilized a custom superlight rotor system with a 1.2-meter (4-foot) wingspan, allowing the 1.8 kg (4lb) aircraft to fly at 2,500 RPM — as a point of reference, helicopters on Earth typically fly at 400-500 RPM.

The helicopter was piloted autonomously using onboard guidance, navigation, and control systems running algorithms developed and pre-programmed for the test flight by the team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

The helicopter flight forms a part of NASA's Mars Perseverance rover mission, paving the way for human flight to the red planet by the 2030s. The rover, with Ingenuity attached, touched down on Mars' Jezero Crater on February 18, after a seven-month journey from Earth.

The aircraft was deployed on April 4th, after which the first test flight was delayed due to an anomaly that required a software update beamed from Earth. Today's flight is the first of five Ingenuity test flights that will be carried out in the coming weeks.

Mars Ingenuity flight location named after Wright Brothers

Following the confirmation of the flight's success and the reveal of the images from Ingenuity and the Perseverance rover, Mimi Aun, project manager at NASA JPL, gave an emotional speech in which she likened the Ingenuity project's first successful test flight to a Wright Brothers moment.

"Like the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, we know that our time to make a difference at Jezero Crater, Mars is not yet over," Aung told a group of engineers wearing face masks at mission control. "This is just the first great flight."

Shortly afterwards, NASA associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen tweeted that "as an homage to the two innovative bicycle makers from Dayton, this first of many airfields on other worlds will now be known as Wright Brothers Field, in recognition of the ingenuity and innovation that continue to propel exploration."

NASA's stay-at-home team flies Mars helicopter from over a million miles away

During Mimi Aung's speech, following the confirmation of the successful test flight, the NASA project manager also paid tribute to the immense power of data sharing, by reaching out to NASA's enormous remote work team and saying "I'm hugging you [all] virtually" — much of NASA's team had to work from home due to ongoing COVID restrictions.

Prior to the confirmation of the test flight success, Tim Canham, Ingenuity operations lead, explained the complex systems used to beam the data from Mars on NASA TV.

Firstly, Ingenuity communicated with a helicopter base station aboard the Mars Perseverance rover. The rover transmitted the data to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which then beamed the data to NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) satellites. Finally, the DSN relayed the information down to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on Earth, California.

Data from the first Ingenuity flight will now be analyzed in order to help set new parameters for the next test flights, the first of which will occur as early as April 22.

Today's historic flight — which could help to revolutionize future off-world exploration — forms part of an exciting period for NASA, who also recently announced a partnership with SpaceX to help humans land on the moon by 2024.

This was a breaking news story and was updated as new information emerged.

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