Very early this morning, NASA flew a small drone helicopter that its latest rover had toted to Mars, marking humankind’s first controlled and powered flight on another planet. Ingenuity stuck the landing—and space engineers are stoked.
“We’re ecstatic, of course,” said Matthew Golombek, a senior research scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, during a call with WIRED shortly after the Ingenuity team learned of the success. The data that trickled into JPL computers early Monday morning was “nominal,” he said—NASA-speak for a best-case scenario. “Anytime you’ve successfully landed a spacecraft, it’s a pretty good moment,” Golombek said.
Ingenuity ascended about 1 meter per second, until it rose 3 meters—about 10 feet above Mars. The helicopter hung as evenly as its state-of-the-art electronics could allow, and then landed where it had been 40 seconds before. Then, Ingenuity pinged its Earth-bound engineers a message they’ve sought for almost a decade: Mission accomplished. The hovering drone sent back a black-and-white video of its own shadow, and the Perseverance rover’s high-resolution camera snapped shots of the flight and landing from a distance.
“We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” MiMi Aung, the project manager, told her team after the flight as she stood in front of giant wall art that read “DARE MIGHTY THINGS,” the message that had also been encoded into the rover’s descent parachute.
The machines humankind has sent to Mars have gotten increasingly sophisticated since the first rover, Sojourner, rolled in 1997. That robot put the first wheels on Mars, and its cousins, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity, followed carrying their suites of science experiments. But Perseverance—the largest of the bunch, which landed in February—has driven around the Red Planet with a helicopter in its belly. Ingenuity is NASA’s first attempt at flying a drone on another planet. The space agency and the contractors who participated in its design want to glean lessons from its flight data to design bigger exploratory flyers for future missions.
During a press conference held later Monday morning, Aung called it an “absolutely beautiful flight” as she watched the video sent from the rover. “I don’t think I can ever stop watching it over and over again,” she said.
The Sojourner technology demonstration in 1997 gave NASA the validation for subsequent rovers, JPL director Michael Watkins said at that press conference. “What the Ingenuity team has done is given us the third dimension,” said Watkins. “I think this is exactly the way we build the future.”
Ingenuity looks like a shiny four-legged mosquito rocking two sets of helicopter rotor blades and a solar panel on its head. It’s about 2 feet tall, and its 15-inch legs keep it upright on jagged alien terrain. Its 4-foot-wide carbon-fiber rotor blades spin ultra-fast to carry a body just big enough to house a battery, sensors, cameras, and the brain that makes each element work in concert.
Flying on Mars is way different than flying on Earth. Gravity is 62 percent weaker there, but the atmosphere is 99 percent thinner and provides much less lift. It would be like flying a helicopter at an altitude of 100,000 feet on Earth, where the record for high flying is less than 41,000 feet for a helicopter and 85,000 for a plane. Ingenuity’s rotor blades spin at up to 2,537 rotations per minute to make up for it—that’s about five times faster than helicopter blades whirl on Earth.