Nasa successfully performed the first-ever powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet on Monday.
The flight – which lasted for about 40 seconds – was carried out by the ultralight solar-powered helicopter Ingenuity on Mars.
Prior to its flight, the Mars-copter was carried in the belly of Nasa’s Perseverance rover, which successfully landed on the Red Planet on 18 February 2021.
It was deployed to the Mars surface in early April, with Nasa initially targeting a flight by no later than 8 April.
However, a “watchdog”” timer issue prevented the helicopter from transitioning to flight mode to perform a high-speed spin test, which meant that Nasa had to troubleshoot and deploy a software fix.
Adding a few commands to the flight operations sequence worked, and the agency managed the first successful high-speed rotor test on Friday (16 April).
The flight was set down for Monday 19 April, and at 9:34 AM South African time Ingenuity briefly took to the sky, rose around 3 metres above the Martian surface, hovered, turned, and then landed.
The Ingenuity team at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California confirmed the flight succeeded after receiving data from the helicopter via Nasa’s Perseverance Mars rover at 6:46 AM EDT (12:46 PM South African time).
Below is an image of the flight captured from Ingenuity’s onboard navigation camera.
The flight presented a major challenge for Nasa engineers.
Due to the distance between Mars and Earth, communications were delayed, which meant that Ingenuity was piloted through onboard guidance, navigation, and control systems running algorithms developed by a team from JPL.
The Mars atmosphere is very thin, with a density just 1% that of Earth’s, while the planet’s gravity is relatively strong – around one third of our planet’s.
To compensate for the lack of forces available to gain lift, Ingenuity was designed to be ultra-light and fitted with 1.2 metres blades which turn extremely fast, at over 2,500 revolutions per minute (RPM).
The helicopter weighs just 1.8kg and stands 49 centimetres tall.
It does not feature any special scientific instruments, but is instead intended to demonstrated that future exploration of Mars’s surface could be carried out from an aerial perspective.
The image below was taken moments after Ingenuity’s high-speed test on 16 April.
The flight was observed by Perseverance, which captured video and photos from Van Zyl Overlook, a location which Nasa had named after Stellenbosch University alumnus Japie van Zyl.
Van Zyl served as solar system exploration director at Nasa, overseeing numerous successful missions, including Juno, Dawn, Cassini, and the implementation of the Mars InSight lander.
Ingenuity’s flight location itself was named Wright Brothers Field, as an homage to the bicycle makers who 117 years ago performed the first manned flight on Earth.
Nasa said that over the next three sols (Mars days), the helicopter team will receive and analyse all data and imagery from the flight and formulate a plan for the second experimental test flight, scheduled for no earlier than April 22.
It added that if the helicopter survived the second flight test, the Ingenuity team would consider how best to expand the flight profile.
Click below to watch Nasa’s full live stream of the Ingenuity flight, which includes video from Perseverance at around the 4:08 mark.