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NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter lifts off of Mars

It was not your average remote-controlled drone flight. A few hours ago, in the middle of martian daytime, Ingenuity, NASA’s $80 million small helicopter, furiously spun its rotors, rose in the air and hovered. It rotated and took a picture before alighting once again on the surface. The modest flight, lasting less than 1 minute, represents a major milestone: the first controlled flight of a powered aircraft on another planet.

The data began to trickle in at 6:40 a.m. EDT, relayed by the Perseverance rover to orbiters above and back to Earth. Cheers erupted 12 minutes later among Ingenuity’s small team of engineers and scientists when confirmation of a successful flight came, first from a laser altimeter showing the helicopter had risen about 3 meters in the air. Those data were followed by a picture from a camera on the helicopter’s belly, showing its shadow directly below on the surface. 

“We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We’ve been talking so long about our Wright brothers moment on Mars. And here it is.”

Ingenuity’s first picture was of its own shadow.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

The basic flight appeared to have gone off without a hitch. Just prior to liftoff, the autonomous 1.8-kilogram helicopter, the size of a tissue box, spun up its counterrotating, 1.2-meter blades until they reached a spin of more than 2500 revolutions per minute. After a final check, the blades adjusted their pitch and managed to beat enough of the thin martian air to rise.

Ever since the Perseverance rover dropped Ingenuity to the martian surface on 4 April, the solar-powered helicopter has performed well, surviving the frigid night and signaling back to the rover as it climbed to a 2-meter-high overlook some 65 meters away. A picture from the rover’s zoom camera, mounted atop its mast, showed the helicopter hovering in midair. In subsequent data downlinks, Ingenuity may reveal what its own side-mounted color camera saw from its high perch.

Although the photos will be a nice perk, the goal of the helicopter test is to obtain engineering data that will be used to build larger, more ambitious helicopters for operation on Mars, Aung said in a briefing before the test. Ingenuity has four more flights left before Perseverance departs on its primary scientific mission to collect rock samples for return to Earth. Four days from now, the second flight should rise to 5 meters, and the one after that will be longer in time. The final two flights will be more ambitious, with the last one likely traveling outside the flat, safe “airfield” the team has mapped out, Aung said. “We will really want to push our vehicle to the limit.”

But even if it was modest, Ingenuity’s first flight will be one for the record books, Aung added. “Each world,” she said, “only gets one first flight.”