NASA Helicopter Flies on Mars

 - April 19, 2021, 10:40 AM

After a week delay, NASA’s $80 million Ingenuity Mars coaxial helicopter took flight at 3:34 a.m. EDT today for 39.1 seconds, hovering for 30 seconds total time and achieving an altitude of 10 feet. NASA received data confirming the flight at 6:46 a.m. Ingenuity is the first aircraft to make powered, controlled flight on another planet. “We don’t know exactly where Ingenuity will lead us, but today’s results indicate the sky—at least on Mars—may not be the limit,” said NASA administrator Steve Jurczyk. NASA said a second flight was scheduled no earlier than April 22 and that it would decide on how to expand the four-pound helicopter’s flight envelope after that. 

In honor of the first flight, NASA designated the test flight area on Mars, in the Jezero Crater, as “Wright Brothers Field.” A small piece of fabric from the original Wright Flyer is attached to Ingenuity. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) presented NASA and the FAA with the official designator for the flight IGY, call sign Ingenuity, and gave the airfield location the ceremonial designator JZRO for Jezero Crater. The Helicopter Association International (HAI) temporarily changed its name for today to the Helicopter Association Interplanetary. “Those men and women have not only slipped the surly bonds of Earth; they have also reached across the heavens and accomplished a stunning milestone in engineering and flight,” said HAI president and CEO James Viola.  

Ingenuity’s initial flight demonstration was autonomous; it was piloted by onboard guidance, navigation, and control systems running algorithms developed by the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Because data must be sent to and returned from Mars over hundreds of millions of miles using NASA’s Deep Space Network satellite constellation, Ingenuity cannot be flown with live pilot inputs and its flight was not observable from Earth in real-time.

The Perseverance rover was parked 211 feet from Ingenuity during the flight at the Van Zyl Overlook and acted as a communications relay between the helicopter and Earth. The rover will also provide photos and additional data from the flight. Perseverance landed on Mars on February 18 with Ingenuity attached to its belly. The aircraft was deployed to the surface of the Jezero Crater on April 3. 

Technical difficulties with the aircraft’s “watchdog” timer had clouded the prospects for the helicopter’s first flight. NASA said this issue had prevented the helicopter from transitioning to flight mode and performing a high-speed spin test on the rotors. Ingenuity’s rotors must spin at 2,537 rpm—about eight to 10 times faster than an Earth helicopter—due to the thin Martian atmosphere. NASA fashioned two solutions to the problem: adjusting the command sequence to slightly alter the timing of the transition and modifying and reinstalling the existing flight-control software. NASA verified the first solution Friday and successfully conducted a high-speed rotor spin test, clearing the way for the first flight this morning.