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Today, NASA made interplanetary history: The Mars helicopter Ingenuity made the first powered, controlled flight off the surface and into the air on another world.
At 07:34 UTC (3:34 Eastern US time) — just after noon local time on Mars — the twin-bladed drone made a vertical test flight, going 3 meters above the ochre Martian dust, hovered stably for 30 seconds, and then landed once again. Nothing like this has ever been attempted before on another planet, and it’s the harbinger of many more such flights.
UPDATE: NASA has released hi-res video of the flight taken from Perseverance, which was 64 meters away at the time.
Ingenuity is the first airfoil flying machine ever sent to a different planet. Unlike its parent rover Perseverance, under which it hitched a ride all the way to Mars, it’s not designed for science. Instead, it’s an engineering testbed, designed and built to try out different technologies for flight. This includes the twin carbon-fiber blades; the avionics that controls the flight, power, communications, and navigation; the landing legs, and even the solar panel on top that provides electricity to charge the lithium ion batteries that power Ingenuity.
This first flight was just a shakedown cruise to make sure everything is in working order. Many more flights are planned, including ones that may take the drone as far as 300 meters! That’s about all the power the drone has in its batteries, but it will still be able to take images and video of the surrounding area, a view the rover Perseverance doesn’t have.
Ingenuity is fairly small, just half a meter tall and has a mass of just under two kilograms (so it weighs about 1.5 pounds in the lower gravity of Mars). Still, the blades are over a meter long and have to spin at 2,400 RPM to provide lift in the thin Martian air, which has a surface pressure just 0.6% that of Earth at sea level. That’s the equivalent of being three times higher than Mount Everest above Earth’s surface. So yeah, thin.
[Tweet from Keri Bean, Mars Ingenuity Helicopter Integration Engineer for NASA/JPL, posing with a full-scale model of Ingenuity. "Dare Mighty Things" is the JPL motto.]
Ingenuity was mounted on the belly of Perseverance for the 470-millon-kilometer trip to Mars, and the rover started the slow deployment of the drone in late March, carefully disengaging a debris shield that protected Ingenuity, then letting it swing down to a vertical position, deploying the landing legs, then finally dropping it the last 20 centimeters or so to the Martian surface. After that Perseverance roved off, letting the drone soak in sunlight and making sure it could survive the frigid nights of Mars.
The original flight was set for April 11, 2021 but a software issue delayed it to April 19. A few days ago the blades were spun up for a full test, and everything went well, so NASA/JPL gave the go-ahead for the first flight.
If the rest of the planned flights are successful, that will pave the way for bigger and more sophisticated drones to be sent to Mars. Satellites orbiting the Red Planet provide wide area coverage at the expense of resolution, or can get high-res images but only in a small area (and can only cover the parts of the planet over which they orbit). Rovers can only get that sort of resolution in the area immediately around them, and they travel relatively slowly. All this is incredible and important, but a flying drone can fill the gap between the two, getting high-resolution imagery covering a larger area around a rover.
… or around a human base, should that eventuality occur. The advantages of rapid deployment air coverage are obvious enough.
And not only that, but a drone called Dragonfly is already being designed for a flight to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Bigger than the planet Mercury, Titan has a thick nitrogen atmosphere, and that plus lower gravity means it will have an easier time getting aloft than Ingenuity… except it’s far, far colder at Titan. That presents its own engineering issues, but this first flight on Mars was a critical first step to more flights on other worlds.
Clearly, this was one small hover for Ingenuity, but one giant flight for humankind.
[NASA is holding a press conference at 2:00 p.m. Eastern time. I will update this article with more photos/videos/info when that occurs.]