NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter makes historic first flight on Mars

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter made history on Monday morning after completing an experimental flight on Mars. Ingenuity is “the first aircraft in history to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet”, announced NASA. It`s considered a major achievement also because the atmosphere on Mars is very thin, which made the flight a huge challenge for the engineers. To better understand how difficult it is to fly on Mars, we`ll take our planet as an example. On Earth, a helicopter has to rotate its blades at 400-500 RPM, while Ingenuity`s blades had to rotate at 2.500 RPM.

Ingenuity flight / Credit: NASA

Coming back to the actual flight, Ingenuity spent only 40 seconds in this thin Martian air. It seems like a very short flight, but its powerful processors gathered a lot of data, deemed as extremely valuable by NASA.

Ingenuity`s flight was an autonomous one because the information sent from Mars takes time to reach Earth. The flight path was coordinated by onboard guidance, navigation, and control systems running algorithms developed by the engineers.

The 1.8 kg solar-powered helicopter reached its maximum altitude of 3 meters and “maintained a steady hover for 30 seconds”.

Why is flying a helicopter on Mars considered important? The main application is to help future exploration missions because it can reach areas like caves and peaks, where rovers don`t have access. In the long run, NASA wants to find out if there is a potential for humans to explore Mars using aerial vehicles.

“Now, 117 years after the Wright brothers succeeded in making the first flight on our planet, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has succeeded in performing this amazing feat on another world”, said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Associate Administrator for Science.

Zurbrucken announced that the place where this historic Mars flight happened will be called “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. As an homage to the two innovative bicycle makers from Dayton, this first of many airfields on other worlds will now be known as Wright Brothers Field, in recognition of the ingenuity and innovation that continue to propel exploration”.

Ingenuity captured this image as it hovered over the Martian surface on April 19, 2021 / Credit: NASA

Ingenuity arrived on Mars on the 18th of February, attached to the belly of the Perseverance rover. During the next three days, a team of engineers will analyze all the data collected during this first flight and come up with a plan for a second experimental flight, scheduled for April 22.