Science

NASA's Ingenuity helicopter makes historic 1st flight on Mars

NASA's experimental Mars helicopter Ingenuity has achieved the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.

'Wright brothers moment' was 6 years in the making, scientists say

Flight of NASA helicopter on Mars described as 'Wright brothers' moment

World

29 days ago
6:31
Edmonton scientist Chris Herd, a member of the Mars Perseverance mission, explains the historic first powered flight in the thin Martian atmosphere. 6:31

NASA's experimental helicopter Ingenuity rose into the thin air above the dusty red surface of Mars on Monday, achieving the first powered flight by an aircraft on another planet.

The triumph was hailed as a Wright brothers moment. The mini four-pound (1.8-kilogram) copter even carried a bit of wing fabric from the Wright Flyer that made similar history at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903.

It was a brief hop — just 39 seconds — but accomplished all the major milestones.

"We've been talking so long about our Wright brothers moment, and here it is," said project manager MiMi Aung, offering a virtual hug to her physically distanced colleagues in the control room, as well as those at home because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Flight controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California declared success after receiving the data and images via the Perseverance rover. Ingenuity hitched a ride to Mars on Perseverance, clinging to the rover's belly when it touched down in an ancient river delta in February.

The team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California reacts after the Mars helicopter Ingenuity's historic first flight on the planet on Monday. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/Handout/Reuters)

The $85 million US helicopter demo was considered high risk yet high reward.

Scientists cheered the news from around the world, even from space, and the White House offered its congratulations.

"A whole new way to explore the alien terrain in our solar system is now at our disposal," Nottingham Trent University astronomer Daniel Brown said from England.

The shadow of NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity is seen during its first flight on the planet on Monday. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/Handout/Reuters)

Otherworldly scouts

This first test flight — with more to come by Ingenuity — holds great promise, Brown noted. Future helicopters could serve as otherworldly scouts for rovers, and eventually astronauts, in difficult, dangerous places.

Ground controllers had to wait more than three excruciating hours before learning whether the preprogrammed flight had succeeded 287 million kilometres away. The first attempt had been delayed a week because of a software error.

When the news finally came, the operations centre filled with applause, cheers and laughter. More followed when the first black and white photo from Ingenuity appeared, showing the helicopter's shadow as it hovered above the surface of Mars.

"The shadow of greatness, #MarsHelicopter first flight on another world complete!" NASA astronaut Victor Glover tweeted from the International Space Station.

Next came stunning colour video of the copter's clean landing, taken by Perseverance, "the best host little Ingenuity could ever hope for," Aung said in thanking everyone.

The helicopter hovered for 30 seconds at its intended altitude of three metres, and spent 39 seconds airborne, more than three times longer than the first successful flight of the Wright Flyer, which lasted a mere 12 seconds on Dec. 17, 1903.

To accomplish all of this, the helicopter's twin, counter-rotating rotor blades needed to spin at 2,500 revolutions per minute — five times faster than on Earth. With an atmosphere just one per cent the thickness of Earth's, engineers had to build a helicopter light enough — with blades spinning fast enough — to generate this otherworldy lift.

What it took to make this happen

More than six years in the making, Ingenuity is just 50 centimetres tall, a spindly four-legged chopper. Its fuselage, containing all of the batteries, heaters and sensors, is the size of a tissue box. The carbon-fibre, foam-filled rotors are the biggest pieces: Each pair stretches 1.2 metres tip to tip.

The helicopter is topped with a solar panel for recharging the batteries, crucial for its survival during the –90 C Martian nights.

NASA chose a flat, relatively rock-free patch for Ingenuity's airfield, measuring 10 metres by 10 metres. It turned out to be less than 30 metres from the original landing site in Jezero Crater. The helicopter was released from the rover onto the airfield on April 3. Flight commands were sent on Sunday, after controllers sent up a software correction for the rotor blade spin-up.

The little chopper with a giant job attracted attention from around the world, from the moment it launched with Perseverance last July until now. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger joined in the fun, rooting for Ingenuity over the weekend via Twitter. "Get to the chopper!" he shouted, re-enacting a line from his 1987 sci-fi film Predator.

Up to five helicopter flights are planned, each one increasingly ambitious. If successful, the demo could lead the way to a fleet of Martian drones in decades to come, providing aerial views, transporting packages and serving as scouts for astronauts. High-altitude helicopters on Earth could also benefit — imagine choppers easily navigating the Himalayas.

Ingenuity's team has until the beginning of May to complete the test flights. That's because the rover needs to get on with its main mission: collecting rock samples that could hold evidence of past Martian life, for return to Earth a decade from now.

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