Why NASA’s first drone flight on Mars is so historic

April 19, 2021, 7:15 PM UTC

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One small flight for a robot, one giant leap for humankind. In the witching hours of Monday morning, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter became the first aircraft to achieve a controlled liftoff and landing on another world.

The solar-powered drone, the size of a tissue box, took flight starting at 3:34 a.m. ET. The autonomous copter climbed 10 feet, whirred in the alien air for 30 seconds at that height, and then touched down. Including ascent and descent, the flight lasted a total of 39.1 seconds.

Courtesy of NASA

The feat signals the advent of a promising new way for humans—aided by winged computers—to explore Earth’s neighboring planets. “We have been thinking for so long about having our Wright brothers moment on Mars, and here it is,” said MiMi Aung, project manager of the space-copter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, in a statement.

The Ingenuity drone caught a ride to Mars inside NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed on the planet, after months of interplanetary transit, on Feb. 18. The rover then spent weeks running diagnostic tests, calibrating equipment, and preparing Ingenuity for its attempted flight.

Courtesy of NASA

NASA received confirmation that the mission had succeeded at 6:46 a.m. ET. It took a few hours for data relayed by the Perseverance rover—including photos and video footage—to be radioed more than a hundred million miles back to Earth.

The drone’s maiden voyage faced uncertainties. Solar radiation has blasted much of Mars’s atmosphere into space, contributing to a much thinner atmosphere. And while the martian surface experiences less than half the gravitational tug of Earth’s, making flight easier, copter blades also have less air at their disposal to achieve lift.

Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s acting administrator, said in a statement that through Ingenuity’s tech demonstration, the agency achieved “a space exploration goal once thought impossible.” He compared the flight to the first Mars rover mission in 1997, Sojourner, which paved the way “for three generations of Mars rovers,” including Perseverance, the most recent.

Courtesy of NASA

Ingenuity took off from Jezero Crater, a site that scientists believe flowed with water billions of years ago. NASA picked the location in hopes that its rover might detect ancient signs of life, whether as traces of fossils or telltale organic compounds, in martian rock samples.

The Ingenuity drone’s successful first flight opens a new frontier for Mars exploration. Future missions could use similar autonomous drones to travel farther and explore harder-to-reach places that are off-limits to ground-bound rovers.

Courtesy of NASA

“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,” Jurczyk said.

Ingenuity is set to attempt four more flights of longer duration and range in the coming days. The next one is scheduled for April 22.

Courtesy of NASA

“If the helicopter survives the second flight test, the Ingenuity team will consider how best to expand the flight profile,” NASA said in a statement.

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