Witness Reporter
5 minute read
19 Apr 2021

NASA’s Mars helicopter takes flight, first for another planet

Witness Reporter

NASA’s experimental helicopter Ingenuity rose into the thin air above the dusty red surface of Mars on Monday, achieving the first powered flight by an aircraft on another planet.

NASA’s experimental helicopter Ingenuity rose into the thin
air above the dusty red surface of Mars on Monday, achieving the first powered
flight by an aircraft on another planet.

AP News reported that the triumph was hailed as a Wright
Brothers moment. The mini four-pound (1.8-kilogram) copter even carried a bit
of wing fabric from the 1903 Wright Flyer, which made similar history at Kitty
Hawk, North Carolina.

“Altimeter data confirms that Ingenuity has performed its
first flight, the first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet,” said
the helicopter’s chief pilot back on Earth, Havard Grip, his voice breaking as
his teammates erupted in applause.

It was a brief hop — just 39 seconds — but accomplished all
the major milestones.

Project manager MiMi Aung was jubilant as she ripped up the
papers holding the plan in case the flight had failed. “We’ve been talking so
long about our Wright Brothers moment, and here it is,” she said.

Flight controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in
California declared success after receiving the data and images via the
Perseverance rover, which stood watch more than 200 feet (65 meters) away.
Ingenuity hitched a ride to Mars on Perseverance, clinging to the rover’s belly
upon their arrival in an ancient river delta in February.

In this image from NASA, NASA’s experimental Mars helicopter Ingenuity lands on the surface of Mars Monday, April 19, 2021. The little 4-pound helicopter rose from the dusty red surface into the thin Martian air Monday, achieving the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.

The $85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk,
yet high reward. “Each world gets only one first flight,” Aung observed earlier
this month.

Ground controllers had to wait more than three excruciating
hours before learning whether the pre-programmed flight had succeeded more than
170 million miles (287 million kilometers) away. Adding to their anxiety: A
software error prevented the helicopter from lifting off a week earlier and had
engineers scrambling to come up with a fix.

When the news finally came, the operations center filled
with applause, cheers and laughter. More followed when the first black and
white photo from Ingenuity appeared on the Mission Control screens, showing the
helicopter’s shadow as it hovered above the surface of Mars. Next came the
stunning color images of the copter descending back to the surface, taken by
Perseverance, “the best host little Ingenuity could ever hope for,” Aung said
in thanking everyone.

The helicopter achieved its planned altitude of 10 feet (3
meters), according to the altimeter data, and hovered for a full 30 seconds,
appearing stable. The touchdown looked just as clean. More details were
expected in the coming hours and days.

To accomplish all this, the helicopter’s twin,
counter-rotating rotor blades needed to spin at 2,500 revolutions per minute —
five times faster than on Earth. With an atmosphere just 1 percent the
thickness of Earth’s, engineers had to build a helicopter light enough — with
blades spinning fast enough — to generate this otherworldy lift. At the same
time, it had to be sturdy enough to withstand the Martian wind and extreme

More than six years in the making, Ingenuity is a barebones
19 inches (49 centimeters) tall, a spindly four-legged chopper. Its fuselage,
containing all the batteries, heaters and sensors, is the size of a tissue box.
The carbon-fiber, foam-filled rotors are the biggest pieces: Each pair
stretches 4 feet (1.2 meters) tip to tip.

The helicopter is topped with a solar panel for recharging
the batteries, crucial for its survival during the minus-130 degree Fahrenheit
(minus-90 degree-Celsius) Martian nights.

NASA chose a flat, relatively rock-free patch for
Ingenuity’s airfield, measuring 33 feet by 33 feet (10 meters by 10 meters). It
turned out to be less than 100 feet (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 Sunday, after controllers sent up a
software correction for the rotor blade spin-up.

Following Monday’s success, NASA named the Martian airfield
“Wright Brothers Field.”

“While these two iconic moments in aviation history may be
separated by time and 173 million miles of space, they now will forever be
linked,” NASA’s science missions chief Thomas Zurbuchen announced.

The little chopper with a giant job attracted attention from
around the world, from the moment it launched with Perseverance last July. Even
Arnold Schwarzenegger joined in the fun, rooting for Ingenuity over the weekend
via Twitter. “Get to the chopper!” he shouted, re-enacting a line from his 1987
sci-fi film “Predator.”

Up to five helicopter flights are planned, each one
increasingly ambitious. If successful, the demo could lead the way to a fleet
of Martian drones in decades to come, providing aerial views, transporting
packages and serving as scouts for astronauts. High-altitude helicopters here
on Earth could also benefit — imagine choppers easily navigating the Himalayas.

“This gives us amazing hope for all of humanity,” Zurbuchen
tweeted. Indeed, JPL’s mantra, “Dare Mighty Things,” was printed on a wall of
the control room.

Ingenuity’s team has until the beginning of May to complete
the test flights. That’s because the rover needs to get on with its main
mission: collecting rock samples that could hold evidence of past Martian life,
for return to Earth a decade from now.

Until then, Perseverance will keep watch over Ingenuity.
Flight engineers affectionately call them Percy and Ginny. “Big sister’s
watching,” said Malin Space Science Systems’ Elsa Jensen, the rover’s lead
camera operator.