NASA’s Mars Ingenuity helicopter made history early Monday when the small but intrepid drone became the first powered craft to fly on another world, space agency officials announced.
Overcoming extreme cold, dangerously thin air and flawed flight software, the $85 million autonomous copter spun its twin carbon fiber rotor blades to rise about 10 feet into the thin Martian air. It hovered briefly in the breeze before safely landing at about 3:30 a.m. ET Monday back on Earth, NASA officials said. The flight was the first of five planned for the next 30 days.
As flight data streamed from Ingenuity to Earth Monday, mission engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California cheered and clapped.
“It’s real; it’s real,” said Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung, slapping the table in front of her with glee and showing a thumbs-up. “We can now say human beings have flown a drone on another planet.”
Ingenuity arrived at Mars’s Jezero Crater in February along with NASA’s Perseverance rover, which was on hand to capture the historic flight on camera.
The drone—stiff-legged and smaller than a picnic basket—was designed as an engineering experiment to prove that powered flight is possible on the red planet and to help NASA plan for a future in which drones play a key role in planetary exploration. Such drones could one day provide access to terrain that is too remote or rugged for rovers to reach—like Mars’s Valles Marineris, the largest canyon in the solar system, or its Olympus Mons shield volcano, which is about 2.5 times the height of Mount Everest.
“It’s the next step in expanding our capabilities to explore another planet,” NASA acting administrator Steve Jurczyk said of Ingenuity. “A helicopter could be used as a scout for robotic missions to look over the horizon and eventually as a partner for astronauts on Mars.”
Ingenuity was on autopilot for its entire flight, out of sight, direct control or contact with the men and women on Earth who had ordered it aloft—because radio signals take too long to travel between the planets for any human operator to intervene.