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NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity takes off on historic 1st powered flight on another world

The aerial exploration of Mars has begun.

NASA's Ingenuity helicopter lifted off on the Red Planet early this morning (April 19), performing the first-ever powered flight on a world beyond Earth.

The 4-lb. (1.8 kilograms) chopper was scheduled to rise from the floor of Mars' Jezero Crater at 12:31 a.m. EDT (0431 GMT) today, get a maximum of 10 feet (3 meters) above the red dirt and land after roughly 40 seconds aloft. 

At about 6:15 a.m. EDT (1015 GMT), data came down from Ingenuity — via its much larger partner, NASA's Perseverance rover — that the little rotorcraft had hit its marks. The first photo from Ingenuity showed the helicopter's shadow on the Martian surface below, while the Perseverance rover captured stunning video of the historic flight on Mars.

"Ingenuity has performed its first flight, the first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet!" Ingenuity's chief pilot Håvard Grip said as he confirmed telemetry at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Brief though today's flight was, it may well be game-changing, paving the way for extensive exploration by Martian aircraft down the road. Thanks to Ingenuity's groundbreaking work, future Red Planet missions could commonly include choppers as scouts for rovers or data collectors in their own right, NASA officials have said. 

Video: Watch Ingenuity's first flight on Mars

An image captured by the Ingenuity Mars helicopter shows the vehicle's shadow on the surface of the Red Planet during its historic first flight on April 19, 2021. (Image credit: NASA TV)

Pioneering Martian flight

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Ingenuity's $85 million mission is a technology demonstration, designed to show that powered, controlled flight is possible on the Red Planet. This was far from a given; the Martian atmosphere is just 1% as dense as that of Earth at sea level, so there's not much air for helicopter blades to push against. This disadvantage outweighs the benefits that aircraft gain from Mars' lower gravitational pull, which is just 38% as strong as Earth's.

Ingenuity flew to Mars attached to the belly of Perseverance, landing inside Jezero with the $2.7 billion rover on Feb. 18. Early this month, the solar-powered rotorcraft deployed onto the crater floor and began prepping for its historic month-long flight campaign, which was originally supposed to begin on April 11.

The core team behind Ingenuity's pioneering flight watched the Mars flight from a control room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. They stood, threw up their hands and cheered as the flight's success was confirmed. 

NASA Mars Helicopter Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung (left) celebrates with her team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California after seeing images from the first successful flight on Mars by the Ingenuity helicopter on April 19, 2021 (Image credit: NASA TV)

MiMi Aung, Ingenuity's project manager, triumphantly tore up her contingency speech (written in case of a failure) and hailed Ingenuity's historic feat on Mars. Every planet, she's said in the past, has gets only one first flight. 

"We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet!" Aung said as her team cheered. "We've been talking so long about our Wright brothers moment on Mars and here it is."

NASA named Ingenuity's Martian airfield used by Ingenuity the Wright Brothers Field after Orville and Wilbur Wright, who performed the first heavier-than-air flight on Earth in 1903. There's a piece of their Wright Flyer plane on Ingenuity to mark the event.

Because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, much of Ingenuity's mission team watched the event via a WebEx video conference. Aung sent them all remote hugs of success. 

"You know I'm hugging you virtually," Aung told her team. 

Related: How the Mars helicopter Ingenuity flies on the Red Planet

This still image from NASA's Perseverance rover on Mars shows the Mars Helicopter Ingenuity hovering above the Martian surface during its historic first flight on April 19, 2021.  (Image credit: NASA TV)

Ingenuity's flight campaign is not focused on gathering data; Ingenuity carries no scientific instruments, though it is equipped with a black-and-white navigation camera and a 13-megapixel color imager. It is meant only to prove that the feat is possible.

The 19-inch-tall (48 centimeters) helicopter sailed through the preflight checks until the final one, an attempted high-speed spin test of the craft's twin, 4-foot-long (1.2 m) rotors on April 9. Those carbon-fiber blades were supposed to spin at about 2,400 revolutions per minute — the rotational velocity they achieve during operational flight — while Ingenuity remained on the ground. But the chopper suffered an issue with its "watchdog timer" and failed to transition into flight mode as required by the test. 

The mission team initially pushed the flight back to April 14, then delayed it again to troubleshoot the issue further. On Saturday (April 17), Aung announced that the team was confident it had found a fix — an adjustment of the command sequence beamed from Earth — and set today as the targeted first-flight date.

NASA's Mars Helicopter Ingenuity team celebrates after seeing a view of the drone's first flight on Mars captured by the Perseverance rover on April 19, 2021 as they watched from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. (Image credit: NASA TV)

"This solution is the least disruptive to a helicopter that, up until we identified the watchdog issue, has been behaving just as we expected," Aung wrote in a blog post Saturday. "It is the most straightforward, since we do not have to change its configuration."

The fix was effective, as this morning's flight shows. Ingenuity flew as planned with the modified command sequence, becoming the first robot ever to ply Mars' thin, dusty skies.

Don't assume from this focus on commands, however, that Ingenuity is a mindless drone; the little robot is capable of significant autonomy. For example, Ingenuity gets its bearings during flight in real time by analyzing the photos snapped by its navigation camera. 

Related: How NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity can fly on the Red Planet

More to come

Ingenuity will fly again soon, if all goes according to plan — up to four more times, in fact, during its month-long window. 

The helicopter will likely go slightly higher and farther on flights two and three, getting up to 16.5 feet (5 m) off the ground and moving a maximum of 165 feet (50 m) downrange, Aung said during a news conference earlier this month. If Ingenuity aces those next two flights, sorties four and five could be "really adventurous," she added.

"History does tell us that soon after their first flight, Orville and Wilbur did go right back to work," Aung said of the Wright brothers who performed the first heavier-than-air flight on Earth at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on Dec. 17, 1903. They flew three more times that day, each one higher and farther than the last, Aung said.

"This is just the first great flight," Aung said. "Congratulations, take a moment and then let's get back to work!"

Perseverance will serve as support during the entire flight campaign; communications to and from Ingenuity must go through the rover, after all. But that campaign is hard-capped at one month in duration, because Perseverance needs to focus on its own work soon. That work has two main components — hunting for evidence of ancient Mars life on the floor of the 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero, which hosted a lake and a river delta billions of years ago, and collecting and caching dozens of samples.

Those samples will be hauled to Earth by a joint NASA/European Space Agency campaign, potentially as early as 2031. Scientists around the world will then be able to analyze the pristine Mars material in far greater detail than Perseverance ever could, capable and complex though the rover is.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

Mike Wall
Michael was a science writer for the Idaho National Laboratory and has been an intern at Wired.com, The Salinas Californian newspaper, and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. He has also worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz.