In a first for aviation, NASA just completed the first aerodynamic flight in another world, when the Ingenuity helicopter took off and landed on Mars!
NASA likened this accomplishment to the first flight of the Wright Flyer. That Kitty Hawk flight 107 years ago covered a short distance, didn’t get high and wasn’t fast. But it didn’t matter; its purpose was to prove heavier-than-air flight. Similarly, the Ingenuity helicopter’s first flight on Mars was unspectacular. The 4-pound (1.8kg) helicopter lifted itself about 10 feet (3m), hovered for 30 seconds, yawed through 90° and descended for a gentle landing. Total flight time was 39.1 seconds. This was exactly according to plan!
In an atmosphere as thin as that of Mars, this was a great achievement. Obviously there was no way to make any kind of corrective manual inputs from Earth. Nor would it be possible to righten the Ingenuity helicopter if it made a bad landing after its Mars flight! So to say that this was a nerve-wracking moment, would be an understatement. Crews had to wait for several hours after the flight took place, to receive telemetry AND pictures, showing that all went well.
Achieving A Helicopter Flight on Mars
Acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk, said:
“Ingenuity is the latest in a long and storied tradition of NASA projects achieving a space exploration goal once thought impossible. The X-15 was a pathfinder for the space shuttle. Mars Pathfinder and its Sojourner rover did the same for three generations of Mars rovers. 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 road to making this helicopter flight on Mars was not without its challenges. First the Ingenuity helicopter had to arrive on Mars on Perseverance. Then it had to un-stow itself from the rover and land on Mars. With the rover moving away, it had to charge its battery while testing its systems and its communications with the rover and Earth. Meanwhile, it had to brave night temperatures of -90°C (-130°F)!
Originally the Ingenuity helicopter would have made its first short Mars hop nearly a week ago. Software problems stopped this from happening. With no way to control the helicopter directly, NASA had to design automated safeguards for the helicopter to decide when it is or isn’t safe to fly. So a possible issue appeared during a test where the helicopter would spin up its blades at a lower speed. NASA took their time to solve that problem.
More To Come?
NASA immortalized the parallel to the Wright Brothers’ achievement by putting a piece of the Wright Flyer on Ingenuity. Yes, a tiny swath of wing fabric from the original Flyer is on Mars, affixed under the Ingenuity helicopter’s solar panel! Also, NASA announced that they named the Martian airfield where the event took place, the “Wright Brothers Field”.
There is more to come from this helicopter flight, as NASA downloads more pictures and video from Mars. The Perseverance rover documented everything, parked 211 feet (64.3m) away from the Ingenuity helicopter. This information will come in the next hours. And of course since all went well, more flights should be coming! The next flight will come “no earlier than April 22”. Ingenuity will need at least that long to recharge its battery with it solar panel.
ICAO congratulated NASA for their achievement, and had a little surprise for them. After their helicopter flight on Mars, NASA now has ICAO designator IGY, and callsign INGENUITY!