On April 19, 2021, America’s civil space program – the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) made history when its Mars Ingenuity helicopter made the first ever powered, controlled flight on another planet. With it, the once comical world of the Jetsons becomes increasingly real.
The solar-powered helicopter first became airborne at 3:34 a.m. EDT – 12:33 Local Mean Solar Time (Mars time) – when NASA’s Ingenuity team determined it would have optimal energy and flight conditions. Altimeter data indicated that Ingenuity climbed to a maximum altitude of 10 feet and maintained a stable hover for 30 seconds. It then descended, touching back down on the surface of Mars after logging a total of 39.1 seconds of flight – one giant leap for drones in space.
Ingenuity’s initial flight demonstration was autonomous – piloted by onboard guidance, navigation, and control systems running algorithms. The flight was not observable from Earth in real time. In part because Mars has a significantly lower gravity – one-third that of Earth’s – and an extremely thin atmosphere, with only 1% the pressure at the surface compared to Earth, this first drone flight in outer space was full of unknowns – not entirely unlike the Wright Brothers early experiments with aeronautical travel. Conventional aircraft cannot fly on Mars because of the thin atmosphere. In order to enable Ingenuity to fly on Mars, NASA engineers gave it ultra-light, compact parts and rotors capable of generating enough lift to carry it aloft. Ingenuity’s rotor blades spin five times faster than those of a conventional helicopter.
Ingenuity traveled the long distance from Earth to Mars aboard NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover folded up like an ironing board in a compartment on the rover’s underside. After landing safely, the drone unpacked itself and then charged its solar-powered batteries, which are needed not only to fly but to power heaters that protect the drone’s fragile components. NASA engineers were concerned that it might not withstand night-time temperatures which are as low as minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
More flights are anticipated for Ingenuity in the coming weeks as part of a broader two year search for signs of past life on Mars.