In a history making event, NASA flew its ingenuity helicopter on Mars, on April 19, 2021!
This was the first ever powered flight on another planet as Ingenuity Helicopter lifted off vertically and then landed back on the surface of Mars, becoming the first aircraft in history to do so. This is not easy as the Martian atmosphere is thin, being just 1% of the density of Earth’s atmosphere and its gravity is one-third that of Earth’s. In the featured image, the helicopter’s shadow can be seen as it hovered above Jezero Crater (landing site of Perserverance Rover), using its navigation camera, which autonomously tracks the ground during flight.
“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,” said NASA Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen. In honour of the two innovative bicycle makers from Dayton, this Martian airfield has now been named as Wright Brothers Field.
Furthermore, according to Ingenuity’s chief pilot, Håvard Grip, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) – the United Nations’ civil aviation agency – presented NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration with official ICAO designator IGY, call-sign INGENUITY and the flight location has also been given the ceremonial location designation JZRO for Jezero Crater.
Not to be left behind, the Perseverance rover – Ingenuity’s ride to the red planet – captured the solar powered helicopter as it flew up and then landed in the view below. Perseverance was launched on July 30, 2020 (with Ingenuity on board) and landed at Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021. It was parked approximately 211 feet (64.3 meters) away at an area known as Van Zyl Overlook during Ingenuity’s flight, acting as a communications relay between the helicopter and Earth and chronicling the flight operations with its cameras.
The Ingenuity helicopter is a technology demonstration to test the first powered flight on Mars and will perform a series of flight tests over a period of 30 sol (Martian days). This Mars Helicopter, or rotorcraft, is 19.3-inch-tall (49-centimeter-tall), weighs 4-pounds (1.8 kg) and contains no science instruments inside its “tissue-box-size fuselage”. Its objective is to demonstrate whether future exploration of Mars could also include an aerial component.
During the first and historic flight, Ingenuity took off a few feet from the ground, hovered in the air for less than a minute and landed, achieving a major milestone: the very first powered flight in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars.
Now the Ingenuity team will “attempt additional experimental flights of incrementally farther distance and greater altitude”, according to NASA’s website. After the helicopter completes its technology demonstration, Perseverance will continue with its scientific mission.
[UPDATE] Ingenuity also successfully completed its second flight on April 22, 2021. This time hovered for a longer period and also flew side to side this time, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. It achieved the intended altitude of 16 feet (5 meters) and even accelerated sideways 7 feet (2 meters) for 52 seconds, 13 seconds longer than the first one.
“Go big or go home!” JPL tweeted in announcing the Earth Day news. Up to three more test flights are planned in the next week and a half each higher than the last and with more complicated manoeuvres.
As per NASA’s website, “Ingenuity’s initial flight demonstration was autonomous – piloted by onboard guidance, navigation, and control systems running algorithms developed by the team at JPL. Because data must be sent to and returned from the Red Planet 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 from Earth in real time.”. The animation below depicts the little helicopter’s flight demonstration. What a time to be alive eh?