NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter flies autonomously on Mars
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter as it hovered over the Martian surface, seen from a camera on the Perseverance Rover parked 200ft away.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter flies autonomously on Mars

Climbing to maximum altitude of 10ft (3m), it hovered, then touched down on the surface after logging 39.1 seconds of flight.

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NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter became the first aircraft in history to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet. The Ingenuity team at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California confirmed the flight succeeded after receiving data from the helicopter via NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover at 6:46 a.m. EDT April 19, 2021.

Acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said, “We don’t know exactly where Ingenuity will lead us, but today’s results indicate the sky – at least on Mars – may not be the limit.”

The solar-powered helicopter first became airborne at 3:34 a.m. EDT – 12:33 p.m. Local Mean Solar Time (Mars time) – a time the Ingenuity team determined would have optimal energy and flight conditions. Altimeter data indicate Ingenuity climbed to its prescribed maximum altitude of 10ft (3m) and maintained a stable hover for 30 seconds. It then descended, touching down on the surface of Mars after logging a total of 39.1 seconds of flight.

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.

NASA Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen announced the name for the Martian airfield on which the flight took place.

“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,” Zurbuchen said. “While these two iconic moments in aviation history may be separated by time and 173 million miles of space, they now will forever be linked.” Ingenuity carries a tiny piece of original fabric from the 1903 Wright Flyer, and as an homage to the two innovative bicycle makers from Dayton, Ohio, the Martian airfield will now be known as Wright Brothers Field.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) presented NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration with official ICAO field designator IGY, call-sign INGENUITY.

The location of the flight has also been given the ceremonial location designation JZRO for Jezero Crater.

As one of NASA’s technology demonstration projects, the 19.3" (49cm) tall Ingenuity Mars Helicopter contains no science instruments inside its tissue-box-size fuselage. Instead, the 4 lb (1.8kg) rotorcraft is intended to demonstrate whether future exploration of the Red Planet could include an aerial perspective.

Mars has a significantly lower gravity – one-third that of Earth’s – and an extremely thin atmosphere with only 1% the pressure at the surface compared to Earth. This means Ingenuity’s two 4ft (1.2m) wide counter-rotating rotor blades must spin at roughly 2,400 rpm to achieve flight. The helicopter contains unique components, as well as off-the-shelf-commercial parts – many from the smartphone industry – that were tested in deep space for the first time with this mission.

NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter captured its own shadow as it hovered over the Martian surface on April 19, 2021.

“The Mars Helicopter project has gone from ‘blue sky’ feasibility study to workable engineering concept to achieving the first flight on another world in a little over six years,” said Michael Watkins, director of JPL. “That this project has achieved such a historic first is testimony to the innovation and doggedness of our team here at JPL, as well as at NASA’s Langley and Ames Research Centers, and our industry partners.”

Parked about 211ft (64.3m) away during Ingenuity’s historic first flight, the Perseverance rover acted as a communications relay between the helicopter and Earth and chronicled the flight operations with its cameras. Pictures from the rover’s Mastcam-Z and Navcam imagers will provide additional data on the helicopter’s flight.

MiMi Aung, project manager of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at JPL, said, “We will take a moment to celebrate our success and then take a cue from Orville and Wilbur regarding what to do next. History shows they got back to work – to learn as much as they could about their new aircraft – and so will we.”

The helicopter team will receive and analyze all data and imagery from the test and formulate a plan for the second experimental test flight. Flight Test No. 2 could include climbing to 16ft (5m) and then flying horizontally for a few feet (meters), flying horizontally back to descend, and landing within the airfield. Total flight time could be up to 90 seconds.

If the second experimental test flight is a success, the goals of Flight Test No. 3 could be expanded to test the helicopter’s ability to fly farther and faster – up to 160ft (50m) from the airfield and then return. Total flight time could be up to 90 seconds.

If the project timeline allows for Flight Test No. 4, the goals and flight plans will be based on data returned from the first three tests. The flights could further explore Ingenuity’s aerial capabilities, including flying at a time of day where higher winds are expected and traveling farther downrange with more changes in altitude, heading, and airspeed.

NASA has invested about $85 million to build the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, accommodate it on Perseverance, and operate the helicopter on Mars.