When a diminutive 4-pound helicopter lifted off over a red landscape on Monday morning, it became the first craft to achieve controlled, powered flight on a planet beyond Earth.
At approximately 6:15 a.m. EDT on Monday, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter team—along with eager viewers from across the globe—watched live as data from the red planet arrived to Mission Control via a Deep Space Network antenna. The data signified that Ingenuity’s flight, which occurred approximately four hours earlier, had been a success.
“Sometimes we have to do something just to show that we can do it,” NASA’s Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen said during NASA’s livestream of the event. “When the Wright brothers flew for the first time, they flew an experimental aircraft. And in the same way, the Mars helicopter is designed to show that we can fly a powered helicopter flight in the Martian atmosphere.”
Getting Ingenuity to fly, Ingenuity Project Manager MiMi Aung added, “was the unwavering dream of our team since day one.”
On Monday, downlink lead Michael Starch, clad in an orange Ingenuity team polo, studied his computer screen in the helicopter control room. “This is downlink. Early indications,” he said, looking up from the monitor. “Data products look nominal.”
Sitting close by was Aung, who visibly grinned under her mask.
“This is downlink,” Starch repeated. “We’ve pulled in data products from Mars 2020.” He pauses for 39 seconds. The room was silent. “This is downlink,” he said again. “Confirming we received Mars 2020 telemetry. Confirming we received Mars 2020 event. Confirming we received helicopter data products.” Starch nodded his head up and down.
Silence once again fell over the control room. Aung twiddled her fingers. Some teammates nodded. Others glanced at their laptops and then back at their anxiously-awaiting colleagues.
“This is downlink,” Starch said. “Confirming we have helicopter data products, helicopter telemetry, helicopter event… battery data has been received.”
Starch handed it off to Flight Control, which gave its announcement: “Ingenuity is reporting having performed spin-up, takeoff, climb, hover, descent, landing, touchdown and spin-down.”
Aung gave two thumbs up and then waved her fists. The control room erupted with clapping, originating from both mask-wearing team members in person and those watching over Zoom.
“Altimeter data confirmed,” Flight Control said. Cheers exploded from the control room. The altimeter plot of the flight, mechanical engineer Taryn Bailey explained during NASA’s livestream, indicates a peak. It starts off with a flat line, showing that Ingenuity is grounded, has a steep incline, indicating that the helicopter has spun up and risen, a dwell, showing that Ingenuity is hovering, and then another steep decline to the ground representing Ingenuity’s touchdown.
“Confirmed that Ingenuity has performed its first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet,” Flight Control said.
As the cheers and fist pumps continued, the team received its first picture from the mission: a black and white photo that Ingenuity snapped while hovering over the Martian surface, its shadow—four rotors, four legs, and a tissue box-like body—cast beneath it.
Getting Ingenuity to fly on Mars was no easy feat. This first flight, initially scheduled for Sunday, Apr. 11, was delayed after team engineers identified a potential problem. (The team decided to update Ingenuity’s flight control software before attempting a maiden flight.) And years of preparation back on Earth was necessary.
Starting in 2014, before testing Ingenuity, the team used helicopter models to simulate flight on Mars. These models were the precursors to Ingenuity and “went through extensive environmental and aerodynamic testing,” Bailey said.
To properly test these models and then Ingenuity beginning in 2019, “We had to simulate a Mars-like atmosphere,” which is 1% the density of Earth’s, Bailey explained. The team did this by using NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s 25-foot space simulator thermal vacuum chamber, which allowed the team to control temperature and pressure to simulate Mars’ atmospheric density. The team also used a gravity off-load system to compensate for the difference in gravity between Earth and Mars, Bailey said.
After these tests “We said, ‘The next time we fly it’ll be on Mars,’” Aung said during a press conference on Apr. 9.
At four pounds, Ingenuity was built to be both light and fast, bolstering its ability to soar in Mars’ incredibly thin atmosphere. Despite its small size, the helicopter’s wingspan is 4 feet tip-to-tip: “super large for something that’s essentially carrying [a vehicle] the size of a tissue box,” Bailey said.
Each of its four blades is made of a lightweight but strong composite material and weighs less than 2 ounces—the equivalent of four empty soda cans. To generate lift in an incredibly-thin atmosphere with few molecules to push around, Ingenuity’s blades move at an average speed of 2,500 rotations per minute. (Helicopters used on Earth typically operate at 450 to 500 rpm.)
While Ingenuity’s first flight was modest—a 10-foot hover above the red planet’s surface and a touchdown—its upcoming four flights will increase in technical difficulty. The team hopes to eventually explore parts of Mars’ terrain that it can’t navigate with terrestrial rovers like Perseverance. “The rover has to navigate around a lot of obstacles on the ground that the helicopter can fly around,” Bailey said.
“We’ve sent five rovers to Mars and now we have an aerial dimension, which...elevates the next stage of space exploration,” she added. Ingenuity and its eventual successors may also allow for more collaboration and eventually open the doorway for human exploration of other worlds, Bailey said.
Though the Ingenuity team already received still images of the helicopter’s maiden flight from both Ingenuity and Perseverance, it expects to get video footage and more high-resolution images in the next couple of days. You can view these on NASA’s website here.