NASA’s Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, made history this week when it became the first aircraft to perform controlled, powered flight on another planet.
The dronelike flying machine, which weighs 4 pounds and stands 19 inches high, hovered about 3 meters above the Martian surface for about 25 seconds before landing safely on the ground.
On Monday, NASA posted a video (top) showing the entire flight. It was captured by a camera on the Perseverance rover, which arrived on the red planet in February with Ingenuity attached to its belly.
As data has to be sent to and returned from Mars 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 said.
This meant that the helicopter’s historic flight was autonomous, piloted by onboard guidance, navigation, and control systems running various algorithms.
One of the many challenges for engineers was to create an aircraft that could get airborne and sustain stable flight in Mars’ superthin atmosphere, which is around 100 times thinner than Earth’s. To get off the ground, for example, Ingenuity had to spin its four carbon-fiber blades — arranged into two rotors — at 2,500 revolutions per minute (rpm), much faster than the approximately 500 rpm used by helicopters on Earth.
“What’s important to keep in mind is that there is no handbook for building Mars helicopters. We’ve never done this before — humanity has never put a helicopter on the red planet,” Teddy Tzanetos, deputy operations lead for Ingenuity, told BBC News after the successful flight. “Space is difficult; space is hard. There have been a lot of large milestones for the project, but those all were building up to today.”
Tzanetos said Ingenuity would perform four more flights of increasing complexity in the coming months, and that each successful flight will provide engineers with huge amounts of useful data, adding, “That [data] is really the treasure trove of information for the flight project because that is what’s going to be used to help build and design and inspire future aircraft missions to the red planet.”
NASA could use future space helicopters to survey the Martian surface from a close distance — unhindered by terrain — and to collect data for mapping routes for future Mars rovers. NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter may also be used as the basis for more sophisticated flying machines that could one day be used to explore other places in our solar system.