NASA Mars helicopter Ingenuity pulls off first historic flight on another planet

«We’ve been talking for so long about our Wright brothers moment on Mars, and here it is.»

Ingenuity, a NASA helicopter no heavier than a 2-liter bottle of soda, has pulled off the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. The feat took place at 12:31 a.m. PT on Monday morning, but it wasn’t until over three hours later that NASA engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory received the first data from Mars.

The first flight of Ingenuity is an impressive milestone in space exploration, paving the way for future missions to the red planet to utilize the skies. Learning to fly on Earth was difficult enough, but flying on Mars was a grand engineering challenge. NASA has shown that it was up to the task.

«We’ve been talking for so long about our Wright brothers moment on Mars, and here it is,» said Ingenuity Mars helicopter project manager MiMi Aung, after ripping up her contingency speech. «We can now say that humans have flown a rotorcraft on another planet.»

Ingenuity was not controlled by engineers on Earth during its attempt. Instead, commands were uploaded to the spacecraft that took it from preflight checks to powered flight in a matter of seconds. The rotor blades spun up to 2,537 rpm, about six times faster than an Earth-based craft. Six seconds after startup, Ingenuity’s blades were able to generate lift by slicing through the tenuous atmosphere on the red planet.

Two images were released of Ingenuity in flight — one showing the shadow of the rotorcraft on the surface of Mars, and one captured from the side by the Mars rover.

You can rewatch NASA’s livestream below.

The flight attempt had been delayed from its original target date of April 11 to give NASA time to update the machine’s software after a spin test of the rotors ended too early. An issue with the «watchdog» timer prevented the helicopter from spinning up correctly, but Ingenuity’s engineering team has corrected the problem. The solution, they said, allows for the chopper to «transition to flight mode and prepare for lift-off about 85% of the time.»

It’s almost 120 years since Orville and Wilbur Wright got their experimental plane off the ground near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, documented in a famous black-and-white image of the flyer taken just moments after it left the ground.

A post-flight press briefing, scheduled to take place at 11 a.m. PT, will likely see the first images and videos downlinked for viewing. Notably, Perseverance, NASA’s next-gen Mars rover and previous home for Ingenuity, was stationed just 200 feet away at a location known as Van Zyl Overlook. The rover likely captured the history-making flight with its Navcam and Mastcam-Z imagers.

Ingenuity will have nabbed its own images, too, with black-and-white images used to navigate and color photographs beamed back to JPL’s mission control later on Monday. We’ll have those images on CNET as soon as they make it back to Earth.

With one successful flight under its belt, NASA’s Ingenuity team isn’t done. A series of increasingly difficult flights will be attempted in the coming weeks, pushing the limits of the tiny helicopter that could. It may not have covered quite the same distance as the Wright brothers, but Ingenuity has opened a path to achieve feats just as stunning elsewhere in the cosmos.

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