Three, two, one, liftoff! For the first time in history, humans have achieved a controlled, powered flight on another planet! The Ingenuity helicopter, part of the Perseverance Mars Mission, made its first test flight early morning on April 19, 2021.
Tell me about the flight!
At 3:43 am EST, Ingenuity took flight, rising to a height of about 10 feet. After hovering in place for 30 seconds, the copter touched back down onto the rusty Martian surface. Not only was this a historic first flight on another world, but Ingenuity flew itself! While NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California had given Ingenuity instructions ahead of time, they were not powering the helicopter in real time. Ingenuity has the ability to fly, navigate, and control itself! The main reason for this is due to the distance—Mars is 170 million miles away, which means it takes time (anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes) for a message to get from the Ingenuity team at JPL to the helicopter on the surface of Mars.
How does Ingenuity work?
Ingenuity gets its power from the Sun with solar panels. This is a fairly small robot, a little less than 20 inches tall with 4-foot rotor blades to help it fly. The goal of Ingenuity is to demonstrate whether it is possible to add flight to the types of ways we can explore Mars in the future. Perseverance, the rover that carried Ingenuity to Mars and placed it on the surface, watched and recorded the incredible flight from 211 feet away.
Why were we unsure about being able to fly on Mars?
Mars is different from Earth in many ways. Mars is about half the size of Earth, which means it has weaker gravity—about ⅓ the gravity of Earth. The atmosphere of Mars is also much thinner —about 100 times thinner than Earth’s! Basically, that means there is less air for those rotor blades to interact with and help Ingenuity fly. Despite these differences, Ingenuity achieved flight! Inspired by the first flights of humans, NASA Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen announced the name for the Martian airfield as Wright Brothers Field.
Will there be more flights?
Yes! Ingenuity has a month carved out for more test flights, each one with a goal to go farther and higher. The next flight is planned for sometime after April 22. Michael Watkins, director of JPL, shares that this flight is “a shining example of the kind of technology push that thrives at JPL and fits well with NASA’s exploration goals.” We couldn’t agree more. Congratulations to the Ingenuity team, and we can’t wait to see the next flight!
Want to learn more? We’re covering this topic all weekend in LSC’s Jennifer Chalsty Planetarium, the biggest planetarium in America. Join our planetarium presenters in our live “Planets Tonight” show. Click here to get tickets now.