Only about a century after the first powered flight on Earth, we’ve already managed to fly the first powered aircraft on another planet.
Early this morning (mid-day Martian time), NASA’s helicopter . The Perseverance rover, which carried the helicopter to its launch site, watched from afar on the and captured photos of the historic moment. Its first test flight today lasted 30 seconds, with the helicopter hovering about 10 feet off the ground. (For comparison, the , and they were testing on a much more hospitable planet.)
Although this still might seem like a short flight, it’s truly incredible given how much more difficult it is to fly in Martian air. In order to fly a helicopter or an airplane, we need — a force moving the aircraft upwards. The problem with Mars is that with its thinner atmosphere, we need a lot more power to move enough air and generate the necessary lift. For this reason, Ingenuity is , so it needs less force to get it off the ground. Its blades are also capable of spinning at over (a whopping than helicopter blades on Earth have to spin).
Ingenuity is a “technology demonstration” — a project meant to prove we can do something, paving the way for future science missions. It tagged along with the Perseverance rover, which will leave the helicopter behind when the test flights are over. Since Ingenuity wasn’t the main mission, it was allowed to be more risky — no matter what happened, it would teach engineers valuable lessons about what to try next time. Before Perseverance resumes its primary science mission, the NASA team will try more and more ambitious flights, . As , Ingenuity’s Project Manager, , “We really want to push the rotor craft flights to the limit!”
Despite some leading up to today’s momentous flight, NASA scientists report the helicopter is healthy, working, and ready for more. There’s definitely a lot to look forward to in the coming weeks as Ingenuity paves the way for a new kind of spaceflight!