Quirks and Quarks

How NASA built and flew the first helicopter to fly on another planet

MiMi Aung, the program manager for NASA's Ingenuity helicopter describes the historic first flight

MiMi Aung, the program manager for NASA's Ingenuity helicopter describes the historic first flight

Ingenuity's downward looking navigational camera captures its own shadow on the Martian surface during its second flight on April 22, 2021. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

On Monday, April 19 NASA's Ingenuity helicopter made its first flight, clawing its way a few metres off the ground for a 30 second flight in the thin Martian atmosphere. Thursday it made a second slightly longer flight and all systems are go for more.

It was the culmination of many years of work for the Ingenuity team, Program manager MiMi Aung told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. 

Several significant engineering challenges faced Aung and other NASA engineers as they developed Ingenuity. First among them was building a helicopter that could fly in an atmosphere just one per cent as dense as Earth's — and that could fit into the small space available on the Perseverance rover.

Though it weighs just under two kilograms, Ingenuity sports two counter-rotating rotor blades that span just over a meter. Those rotors spin six times faster than they would for a helicopter flying in Earth's atmosphere.

The helicopter's flight also has to be entirely autonomous. While the NASA engineers can specify the height, duration, and route for flights, the lengthy communications delay between Earth and Mars means Ingenuity does the flying all by itself.

Ingenuity captured in flight by cameras on NASA's Mars Perseverance rover (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Aung suggests that this opens whole new possibilities for planetary exploration. Helicopters on Mars will be able to explore cliff faces and ravines that are inaccessible to wheeled rovers.  And they will also be able to act as scouts to identify promising and safe routes for rovers and eventually perhaps human explorers.

The significance of this first flight on another planet is underlined by a symbolic passenger that the helicopter is carrying: a fragment of fabric from the Wright brothers flyer that accomplished the first powered flight on Earth in 1903.

Produced by Sonya Buyting, written by Jim Lebans