NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter has become the first aircraft in history to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet.
The Ingenuity team at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California confirmed the flight succeeded after receiving data from the helicopter via NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover at 6:46 am EDT on 19 April 2021.
“Ingenuity is the latest in a long and storied tradition of NASA projects achieving a space exploration goal once thought impossible,” commented acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk. “The X-15 was a pathfinder for the space shuttle. Mars Pathfinder and its Sojourner rover did the same for three generations of Mars rovers. We don’t know exactly where Ingenuity will lead us, but today’s results indicate the sky – at least on Mars – may not be the limit.”
The solar-powered helicopter became airborne 3:34 am EDT, which was a time the team concluded would have optimal energy and flight conditions.
Altimeter data indicate Ingenuity climbed to its prescribed maximum altitude of 10 feet (three metres) and maintained a stable hover for 30 seconds. It then descended, touching back down on the surface of Mars after logging a total of 39.1 seconds of flight.
The Ingenuity Mars helicopter’s flight demonstration was autonomous and piloted by onboard guidance, navigation, and control systems running algorithms developed by the team at JPL.
As data has to be sent to and returned from Mars over hundreds of millions of miles using orbiting satellites and NASA’s Deep Space Network, Ingenuity cannot be flown with a joystick, and its flight was not observable in real time from Earth.
“Now, 117 years after the Wright brothers succeeded in making the first flight on our planet, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has succeeded in performing this amazing feat on another world,” NASA Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen said.
“While these two iconic moments in aviation history may be separated by time and 173 million miles of space, they now will forever be linked. 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.”
Michael Watkins, director of JPL explained: “The Mars Helicopter project has gone from ‘blue sky’ feasibility study to workable engineering concept to achieving the first flight on another world in a little over six years.
“That this project has achieved such a historic first is testimony to the innovation and doggedness of our team here at JPL, as well as at NASA’s Langley and Ames Research Centers, and our industry partners. It’s a shining example of the kind of technology push that thrives at JPL and fits well with NASA’s exploration goals.”
“We have been thinking for so long about having our Wright Brothers moment on Mars, and here it is,” added MiMi Aung, project manager of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at JPL. “We will take a moment to celebrate our success and then take a cue from Orville and Wilbur regarding what to do next. History shows they got back to work – to learn as much as they could about their new aircraft – and so will we.”