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

NASA’s experimental Mars helicopter rose from the planet’s dusty red surface into the thin air Monday, achieving the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.

The triumph was hailed as a Wright brothers moment. The mini 1.8-kilogram copter named Ingenuity, in fact, carried a bit of wing fabric from the 1903 Wright Flyer, which made similar history at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

“Altimeter data confirms that Ingenuity has performed its first flight, the first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet,” said the helicopter’s chief pilot back on Earth, Havard Grip, his voice breaking as his teammates erupted in applause.

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

Project manager MiMi Aung was jubilant as she ripped up the papers detailing the plan in case the flight had failed. “We’ve been talking so long about our Wright brothers moment, and here it is,” she said.

Flight controllers in California confirmed Ingenuity’s brief hop after receiving data via the Perseverance rover, which stood watch more than 65 metres away. Ingenuity hitched a ride to Mars on Perseverance, clinging to the rover’s belly upon their arrival in an ancient river delta in February.

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)

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

“Each world gets only one first flight,” Aung noted earlier this month. Speaking on a NASA webcast early Monday, she called it the “ultimate dream.”

Aung and her team had to wait more than three excruciating hours before learning whether the pre-programmed flight had succeeded 287 million kilometres away. Adding to their anxiety: a software error prevented the helicopter from lifting off a week earlier and had engineers scrambling to come up with a fix.

Applause, cheers and laughter erupted in the operations centre when success was finally declared. There was even more when the first black and white photo appeared on the screens, showing Ingenuity’s shadow as it hovered above the surface of Mars.

Next came stunning colour video of the helicopter’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 planned 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 that, 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. At the same time, it had to be sturdy enough to withstand the Martian wind and extreme cold.

What it took to make this happen

More than six years in the making, Ingenuity is a bare bones, 50-centimetres tall, spindly four-legged chopper. Its fuselage, containing all 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.

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

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 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 here 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.

Until then, Perseverance will keep watch over Ingenuity. Flight engineers affectionately call them Percy and Ginny. “Big sister’s watching,” said Malin Space Science Systems’ Elsa Jensen, the rover’s lead camera operator.

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