NASA successfully flew a small autonomous helicopter on Mars early Monday morning, marking the first powered flight on another planet.
NASA’s four-pound solar-powered Ingenuity Mars Helicopter climbed to an altitude of 10 feet and hovered for 30 seconds before descending back to the surface. Its total flight time clocked in at 39.1 seconds.
The flight took place at 3:34 a.m. EST, and flight data returned to Earth some three hours later. NASA’s Perseverance rover parked some 200 feet away where its cameras recorded the helicopter’s progress and relayed data to Earth.
The flight was questionable due to Mars’ thin atmosphere consisting of just 1-percent of pressure at the surface compared to Earth, as well as its “significantly lower gravity” comprising just one-third of Earth’s gravity. As a result, the helicopter had relatively few air molecules available to help it achieve flight.
“Ingenuity is the latest in a long and storied tradition of NASA projects achieving a space exploration goal once thought impossible,” acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said in a NASA press release. “The X-15 was a pathfinder for the space shuttle. Mars Pathfinder and its Sojourner rover did the same for three generations of Mars rovers. 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.”
NASA said it will analyze all data and images from the Ingenuity’s first flight and develop a plan to launch the craft again sometime after April 22.
The Ingenuity helicopter flew to Mars while attached to the Perseverance rover, which landed on Feb. 18.
The helicopter had remained attached to Perseverance’s belly for a month after landing, after which the rover deployed the debris shield protecting the helicopter on March 21. The rover then transported the helicopter to an “airfield” where it took its historic flight. That location has now been designated “Wright Brothers Field.”
“Now, 117 years after the Wright brothers succeeded in making the first flight on our planet, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has succeeded in performing this amazing feat on another world,” NASA Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen said. “While these two iconic moments in aviation history may be separated by time and 173 million miles of space, they now will forever be linked. As an homage to the two innovative bicycle makers from Dayton, this first of many airfields on other worlds will now be known as Wright Brothers Field, in recognition of the ingenuity and innovation that continue to propel exploration.”