NASA's Mars helicopter took flight for the first time, opening the door for a new generation of space drones

Ingenuity mars helicopter first flight photo black white shadowNASA/JPL-CaltechIngenuity snapped this photo of its shadow on the ground below as it flew on Mars for the first time, April 19, 2021.

NASA’s Ingenuity space helicopter lifted off from the Martian surface, flew, and landed safely, pioneering a technology that could revolutionize the way we explore other planets.

The 2kg drone began to spin its four carbon-fiber blades early Monday.

Spinning in opposite directions at 2,500 rotations a minute – about five times the speed of a helicopter on Earth – the blades gained enough traction in the thin Martian atmosphere to lift Ingenuity into the air.

Ingenuity flight mars helicopterNASA/JPL-CaltechImages from the Perseverance rover show Ingenuity flying and landing on April 19, 2021.

It took several hours for NASA to receive the data confirming that the mission was a success, which it reported to cheers in the control room at 6:52 a.m. ET.

The drone climbed about 3.05m above the red-dust ground and hovered there for about 30 seconds.

It was the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.

Though 3.05m may not sound like much, hovering there is the equivalent of flying three times as high as the peak of Mount Everest, since Mars’ atmosphere has 1% the density of Earth’s.

Ingenuity’s purpose on Mars was simply to show that rotorcraft technology could work in that kind of harsh environment. Its mission is now a success.

Ingenuity mars helicopter first flight photos perseverance edited skitch 4x3NASA/JPL-CaltechThe Perseverance rover captured Ingenuity’s first flight on Mars, April 19, 2021.

Two cameras on the bottom of Ingenuity recorded a still image and are likely to have produced footage too, though this takes longer to reach Earth.

The Perseverance rover – which carried Ingenuity to Mars – watched the liftoff from a nearby overlook, filming as well.

Video footage from both was expected to be available within a few days of the launch, NASA officials said before the flight.

NASA Perseverance NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Se├ín DoranThe Perseverance rover captured a ‘selfie’ with Ingenuity before driving to an overlook to watch the helicopter fly.

Ingenuity had to fly autonomously, since it takes eight minutes for signals to travel between Earth and Mars – far too long to control the flight in real time.

So while it was the dead of night in Pasadena, California, a team of NASA engineers was awake, waiting to hear from the helicopter.

Mars helicopter ingenuity nasa gifNASA/JPL-Caltech

They had spent five years building the vehicle in preparation for this moment but couldn’t do anything to control it in real time. In fact, they didn’t hear from the helicopter until about three hours after it flew.

At 6:52 a.m. ET, mission controllers received a signal that Ingenuity had touched down in one piece. The room erupted in cheers and applause.

“We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” MiMi Aung, the project manager for Ingenuity, told the helicopter team at NASA mission control shortly after receiving the flight confirmation. “We must take a moment to celebrate.”

Ingenuity’s success means it will attempt to conduct up to four more flights of increasing difficulty over the next month, venturing higher and farther each time.

Before the flight, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, told Insider the flight would prove that NASA “can add an aerial dimension to discovery and exploration on Mars.”

“That aerial dimension, of course, opens up aspects of science and overall exploration that, frankly, at this moment in time are only our dreams,” he said.

NASA’s space-drone dreams

Mars astronauts helicopter drone skitchNASAAn illustration of astronauts working on the surface of Mars with an Ingenuity-like helicopter flying to the left.

Space helicopters similar to Ingenuity could someday explore canyons and mountains, study large regions faster than a rover can, or even do reconnaissance for astronauts.

These space drones could fly “over ravines, down canyons, up mountains,” Josh Ravich, the mechanical lead for the Ingenuity team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Insider. “Even rocky terrain is fairly inaccessible to the rovers but much more easily accessed by a rotorcraft.”

NASA already has a helicopter mission in development: A rotorcraft called Dragonfly is set to launch toward Saturn’s moon Titan in 2027. It aims to investigate whether that methane-rich world could host alien life.

Dragonfly titan helicopter nasaNASA/Johns Hopkins APLAn artist’s impression of the Dragonfly helicopter on Titan’s surface.

But Dragonfly is still only the beginning of NASA’s space-drone dreams.

“Instead of a large rover carrying a small helicopter, imagine maybe a large helicopter carrying a small rover in the future,” Ravich said.

Zurbuchen said he could even imagine a “fleet” of flying robots assisting future Mars astronauts.

“I’m sure our community will look at any and all options to bring controlled flight to bear as a tool of research and exploration,” Zurbuchen said. “I’m sure they’ll think of aspects that I cannot think of right now.”

The first of up to 5 high-risk, high-reward flights

Mars ingenuity helicopter rotor blades spinNASA/JPL-Caltech/ASUThe Perseverance rover captured the Ingenuity helicopter before, left, and after spinning its rotor blades.

Since all of Ingenuity’s flights are demonstrations of an experimental technology, NASA engineers are prepared for later attempts to fail.

“We are aware that failure is more likely in this kind of scenario, and we’re comfortable with it because of the upside potential that success has,” Zurbuchen said.

But if all goes well, Ingenuity’s fifth and final venture could take it up to 15 feet high and out over 298.70m of Martian ground.

By then, though, “it would be unlikely to land safely, because we’ll start going into unsurveyed areas,” Aung said in a preflight briefing.

“If we do have a bad landing, that will be the end of mission,” she added. “The lifetime will be determined by how well it lands, pretty much.”

In NASA’s eyes, though, Ingenuity is already victorious, since Monday’s feat provides unprecedented data about flight on Mars that will inform future rotorcraft projects.

The worst-case scenario, Ravich said, would have been if Ingenuity didn’t fly at all.

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