NASA’s Mars Helicopter Has Pulled off Its Historic First Flight

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter performed the first powered flight on another planet on Monday, ushering in a new era of extraterrestrial aviation.
April 19, 2021, 11:56am
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech​
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter successfully lifted off from the surface on Mars on Monday, a milestone that demonstrates the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. 

The historic voyage, which lasted about 39 seconds, took Ingenuity about 10 feet off in the Martian surface at Jezero Crater, the region where the helicopter landed in the belly of the Perseverance rover in February. 

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“Our team has been working on the Mars helicopter for over six years—and for some, even longer—towards this ultimate dream of experimenting with the first flight on Mars,” said MiMi Aung, the project manager for Ingenuity, in a press briefing from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Here we are.”

Applause erupted around 6:52AM ET in the JPL control room where the Ingenuity leads had assembled to hear the first flight report from the helicopter, which conducted its ascent autonomously a few hours earlier. A minute later, the first images of the aerial milestone arrived, captured both from the perspective of Ingenuity’s downward-facing navigation camera and Perseverance, which watched the flight from a safe distance.

The view from Ingenuity shows the helicopter’s shadow cast on the Martian ground, a stunning visual encapsulation of the team’s accomplishment. Meanwhile, Perseverance captured images of the full flight, revealing the tiny helicopter’s frame against the vast landscape of Jezero Crater.

To generate lift in the extremely thin air of Mars, Ingenuity’s blades had to rotate at an astonishing rate of 2,500 revolutions per minute, roughly five times faster than helicopter rotors on Earth. The helicopter has also survived many frigid nights on Mars since it was first dropped off on the surface by Perseverance on April 3.

After weeks of waiting for the flight, the sense of relief and elation from mission leads was palpable on the livestream. Shortly after the good news arrived, Aung called the triumph “our Wright brothers moment” and expressed appreciation for all the people who had contributed to the breakthrough.

“We don't know from history what Orville and Wilbur did after their first successful flight,” Aung said, referring to the Wright brothers, “but I imagine the two brothers hugged each other.” 

“Well, you know, I'm hugging you virtually,” she added.

As a nod to this continuum of aviation milestones, Ingenuity carries a piece of the Wright Flyer, that groundbreaking vehicle that took to the air near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. But as with the development of aircraft on Earth, the era of powered flight on alien worlds will not stop with this one inaugural technology demonstration.

Ingenuity is expected to make incrementally more ambitious flights over the course of the next few weeks before it is retired roughly one month from now. Moreover, the helicopter has proved that powered flights beyond Earth are possible, opening up the potential for more sophisticated aircraft on Mars, and elsewhere in the solar system, in the future.

“We must take a moment to celebrate this moment,” Aung concluded. “That’s really important. Congratulations, everybody. Congratulations. Take that moment, and then after that, let's get back to work and more flights.”