NASA's Mars helicopter makes first flight on another planet

Air traffic controllers in California confirmed Ingenuity’s brief jump after receiving data on the Perseverance rover standing guard more than 65 meters away. Ingenuity made a trip to Mars with persistence, clinging to the rover’s belly when it arrived in an ancient river delta in February.

The $ 85 million helicopter demo was rated risky yet highly rewarded.

“Each world only gets one first flight,” stated project manager MiMi Aung earlier this month. When she spoke on a NASA webcast early Monday, she called it the “ultimate dream.”

Aung and her team had to wait more than three excruciating hours before they learned whether the pre-programmed flight was successful at a distance of 150 million miles. In addition, the helicopter was unable to take off a week earlier due to a software error and the engineers tried to find a solution.

Applause, cheers and laughter broke out in the operations center as success was finally declared. More followed when the first black and white photo of Ingenuity appeared on their screens, showing its shadow as it hovered over the surface of Mars. Next came the breathtaking color images of the helicopter that flew back to the surface from Perseverance. “The best host little Ingenuity could ever hope for,” said Aung, thanking everyone.

NASA had aimed for a 40-second flight, and while details were initially sparse, the vehicle hit all of its targets: ramp up, take off, hover, sink, and land.

To achieve all of this, the helicopter’s two rotor blades rotating in opposite directions had to rotate at 2,500 revolutions per minute – five times faster than on Earth. With an atmosphere only 1 percent the thickness of the earth, engineers had to build a helicopter light that was light enough – with rapidly rotating blades – to create this otherworldly lift. At the same time, it had to be robust enough to withstand the Martian wind and the extreme cold.

Ingenuity has been a 0.5 meter tall barebone with a spindle-shaped four-legged helicopter for more than six years. The fuselage, which contains all the batteries, heaters and sensors, is the size of a tissue box. The foam-filled carbon fiber rotors are the largest parts: each pair extends 1.2 meters from tip to tip.

The helicopter is equipped with a solar panel for charging the batteries, which is crucial for its survival on the Martian nights with minus 90 degrees Celsius.

NASA chose a flat, relatively stone-free patch for Ingenuity’s airfield, which was 10 by 10 meters. It turned out to be less than 30 meters from the original landing site in Jezero crater. The helicopter was released from the rover onto the airfield on April 3. Flight commands were sent on Sunday after air traffic controllers sent a software correction for revving the rotor blade.

The little helicopter with a huge job caught the attention of the whole world from the moment it launched with Perseverance last July. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger took part and campaigned for Ingenuity via Twitter over the weekend. “Go to the helicopter!” he yelled, reenacting a line from his 1987 science fiction film “Predator”.

Up to five helicopter flights are planned, each of which is becoming increasingly ambitious. If successful, the demo could point the way to a fleet of Mars drones in the coming decades to deliver aerial photographs, transport packages and serve as scouts for astronauts. Altitude helicopters here on earth could benefit too – imagine helicopters navigating the Himalayas easily.

The Ingenuity team has until the beginning of May to complete the test flights. That’s because the rover has to do its main job: collecting rock samples that could contain evidence of past life on Mars in order to return to Earth in a decade.

Until then, Perseverance will keep an eye on Ingenuity. Flight engineers affectionately call them Percy and Ginny. “Big sister is watching,” said Elsa Jensen of Malin Space Science Systems, the rover’s lead cameraman.


The Associated Press Department of Health and Science is supported by the Department of Science Education of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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