NASA’s tiny Ingenuity helicopter made history today by making the first controlled, powered flight of an aircraft on another planet, Mars.
The JPL-NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory team controlling the mission from California reported live receipt of data confirming that it had taken off, hovered and re-landed in Mars’ Jezero Crater.
In addition, a black-and-white image taken by the helicopter of its shadow while in the air and a small video recorded by the Perseverance rover, which remains several meters away and serves as a communication link, were received.
Confirmation that the small device (1.8 kilograms in weight) passed an incredibly complicated test with flying colors came at 10:46 GMT.
The solar-powered helicopter lifted off at 12.33 local solar mean time on Mars (07.34 GMT), ascended to its prescribed maximum altitude of 3 meters, hovered for 30 seconds before descending and touching down again. Total flight time was 39.1 seconds.
The 278 million kilometers separating the two planets make live data impossible -the time lag is about 15 minutes- so Ingenuity received the instructions yesterday, but had to manage the flight itself today.
After receiving the data, the JPL-NASA team erupted in cheers, applause and joy behind facemasks.
Mimi Aung, project manager for Ingenuity at JPL, said: “Now we can say that humans have succeeded in flying for the first time on another planet” and, overwhelmed with emotion, recalled the six years of work, while assuring that “if it weren’t for the covid-19, I would hug” all her colleagues.
Soaring on Mars is no easy task. Although the gravity is about one third of ours, the pressure of the atmosphere on the surface is only 1 % of the Earth’s, so its blades had to rotate much faster, 2,537 revolutions per minute.
The whole process has been closely followed by the Perseverance rover, which carried the helicopter to Mars in its “belly” and ensures its communications. On its Twitter profile, it wrote: “you wouldn’t believe what I just saw”, accompanied by a gif showing the flight, which he recorded in color.
The JPL highlighted in a tweet that it is possible “motorized and controlled flight from the surface of another planet. It takes a little ingenuity, perseverance and spirit to make this opportunity a reality.”
It was the first, but not the last time it will try. Its mission will last 30 sols (Martian days), during which it could take flight another five times and, as the Olympic motto goes, it will try to make it higher (up to five meters) and farther.
Ingenuity has an air of fragility, with a wingspan of 1.2 meters, it consists of a small cube-shaped body, which houses sensors, cameras and batteries, two pairs of carbon fiber blades, placed one on top of the other, an antenna and a small solar panel, and four thin legs to perch on.
NASA broadcast live from the JLP room where the data were received. At 10.40 GMT the engineer in charge of the reception, identified as Michael, pronounced a laconic and neutral “starting to see data”, and shortly after: “they look nominal.”
There began a few minutes of tension while they were entering and analyzing what they received from Mars: telemetry, battery, camera report, the engineer kept saying with the same tone that did not let any emotion show.
Finally NASA confirmed that “the data reveal that the helicopter has had a successful first flight.”
Ingenuity does not carry any scientific instrument, since it is a proof of concept, a technological demonstration that it is possible to fly on the red planet, which will allow to acquire knowledge and experience for future missions that may have flying devices.
This venture has been compared by NASA to the feat achieved in 1903 by the Wright brothers, who made the first powered flight. In fact, Ingenuity carries under its rotors a small piece of fabric from the wings of that plane, and Aung also remembered them today.
NASA will hold a press conference later in the day with more details about the flight of the helicopter, which has written a page in the history of space, for as it was written on the wall of the JPL hall, they have dared to do mighty things.