NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter Takes Flight on Mars

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NASA is no stranger to making history, but today was a major milestone in our exploration of Mars by any measure. After a brief delay, the Ingenuity helicopter lifted off from the floor of Jezero Crater at 3:34 AM EDT. It flew for several seconds before landing safely. This marks the first time a human-made machine has taken flight on another planet. It’s onward and upward from here. 

Ingenuity arrived on Mars along with the Perseverance rover in February 2021, but it wasn’t deployed on the surface until several weeks later when NASA found a suitable location. Mars is too distant for NASA to control the helicopter in real-time, so the team wanted to ensure 4-pound (1.8-kg) rotorcraft had plenty of open space for its autonomous flight. It has advanced onboard guidance and navigation courtesy of the Snapdragon 801, which is a smartphone chip from 2014. 

Early this morning, Ingenuity spun up its carbon fiber rotors and lifted off for its pre-programmed hop. The helicopter rose to an altitude of 10 feet (a little over 3 meters) and then hovered for 30 seconds before coming back down for a soft landing. NASA confirmed the successful flight 12 minutes later when the drone’s data arrived back at Earth after passing through Perseverance. Ingenuity needs that boost from the rover because it was designed to be a simple technology demonstration without bulky communication or scientific equipment. 

NASA did not equip Ingenuity with any important instruments because no one was sure how well it would fly on Mars. The red planet’s atmosphere is just one percent as dense as Earth’s, so Ingenuity needed to spin its 4-foot rotors at about 2,400 RPM to get enough lift. It was a major engineering challenge even with a third the gravity of Earth. NASA tested the drone under Mars-like conditions here on Earth, but we didn’t know for sure if it would work until it did. 

Currently, Ingenuity is sitting in what has been officially named “Wright Brothers Field” in Jezero Crater. NASA is still waiting for another uplink slot to download the rest of the flight data, including images captured by Ingenuity’s rover companion from its vantage on Van Zyl Overlook some 64 meters away. After evaluating the data, NASA will plan additional flights that reach higher altitudes. The next flight will take place no earlier than April 22. The team probably won’t wait too long, though. Ingenuity is not as hardy as Perseverance, and probably won’t live through a single Martian winter, but it has shown that off-the-shelf technology has a place in planetary exploration.

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