The Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity, resting on the ground on Mars, awaiting its first historic flight on another world.  NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity, resting on the ground on Mars, awaiting its first historic flight on another world.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A Helicopter Takes Flight on Mars

A Helicopter Takes Flight on Mars

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More than a century ago the first propeller-driven aircraft took off on Earth.

On Monday, another one took flight for the first time on a different planet.

NASA’s experimental Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity, successfully lifted off the ground at 3:34 a.m. EDT — that’s around noon local Martian time in Jezero Crater, the current location of Ingenuity and the Perseverance rover. The flight data, sent from Perseverance and relayed by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, was transmitted back to Earth almost three hours later. 

An image captured by a camera on the Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity, during its historic first flight on Mars. The image is an overhead view of the ground where Ingenuity took off from, showing the twin wheel tracks of the Perseverance rover that deposited in on the ground, and the shadow of the helicopter in flight. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Ingenuity’s first flight took it straight up about 10 feet, where it hovered, made a small victory turn-in-place for Perseverance’s cameras, then settled back to the ground about 40 seconds after liftoff. Not a flight endurance record by tried-and-true Earth aviation standards, but certainly a one-small-hop-for-a-robot, one-giant-leap-for-interplanetary-exploration achievement. 

Ingenuity’s maiden flight had been scheduled for April 11, but was postponed when a software glitch failed to engage the system’s flight mode during a pre-flight rotor test. After some analysis and software testing, NASA Jet Propulsion Lab engineers worked out a fix and ran further tests before mission controllers approved another flight attempt. 

Animation showing the Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity, testing its twin rotors in preparation for its historic first flight on Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU)

With more test flights planned in days ahead, engineers at JPL, located in Pasadena, California, will have further opportunity to hone their brand new Martian aviation skills. 

Proof of Concept

The Mars Helicopter is an add-on experiment to last year's  Perseverance mission. Equipped with only an onboard computer, two small cameras and a wireless link to Perseverance, Ingenuity carries no science instruments; its entire mission is to provide proof of concept for aerial exploration of Mars, and maybe of other worlds. Even if it never leaves the ground again, Ingenuity has still achieved the mission’s primary goal.

The Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity, still attached to the underbelly of the Perseverance rover, before begin placed on the ground. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

As scientists and engineers conceive new designs for robots to move around the surfaces of other worlds, which to this point has all been done by wheeled rovers, Ingenuity’s successful flight opens a path to greater freedom for humans to explore areas where wheels cannot carry us. 

To achieve this flight, engineers at JPL had to meet some steep design challenges, not the least of which was to build a helicopter that can fly in Mars’ thin atmosphere, which is about a hundredth the density of Earth’s at sea level. Even helicopters on Earth that have reached the highest mountain peaks such as Mount Everest, where the air is still one-third as dense as it is at sea level, have strained the limits of conventional engine and rotor blade technology.

A "selfie" taken by the Mars 2020 rover, Perseverance, showing the Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity, placed on the ground from where it would later take to flight. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS/Sean Doran)

Ingenuity’s specially designed twin counter-rotating propeller blades must spin at around 2,500 revolutions per minute to lift the 1.8 kilogram (4-pound) craft off Mars’ surface. Mars’ lower surface gravity, which is 38% of Earth’s, makes the feat easier, but the low air density underscores the unearthly challenges of exploring other planets. 

Future missions may include airborne drones to perform aerial reconnaissance, collect rock and soil samples over a wider area, or even independently explore a much vaster region than a wheeled rover crawling carefully through an obstacle-laden terrain can. 

An illustration of how Mars' Jezero Crater, where the Mars 2020 rover Perseverance is currently exploring, may have looked when it was a river-fed lake in Mars' distant, wetter past. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Perseverance landed on Feb. 18 in Mars’ Jezero Crater, on a mission to search for clues to ancient life locked in the rocks and soil of a dry lakebed and a formation of sediments washed into it long ago, when Mars possessed a wetter, more Earth-like climate.