‘Wright brothers moment’: Ingenuity takes flight on Mars
At long last, history has finally been made as humankind has made the next great stride in powered flight; the first flight on another planet.
On April 19, 2021, the Ingenuity helicopter successfully took to the Martian skies in what is hopefully the first of up to five experimental flights expected to take place over the duration of the next few weeks.
“We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” said MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory before thanking the whole team for their years of dedication on the project. “We, together, flew at Mars and we, together, now have our Wright brothers moment.”
Aung said history shows that soon after their first flight in 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Wilbur and Orville Wright went right back to work and flew three more flights that day, higher and farther than the first.
“Like the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, we know that our time to make a difference at Jezero Crater on Mars is not yet over,” Aung said. “This is just the first great flight.”
Aung asked the team to enjoy this moment and celebrate, in particular because over the years for each major milestone passed, the team held off fully celebrating in order to keep moving forward.
“We must take a moment to celebrate this moment,” Aung said. “Take that moment, and then after that, let’s get back to work and more flights!”
You wouldn’t believe what I just saw.
— NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) April 19, 2021
Ingenuity’s first flight occurred about about 3:34 a.m. EST (07:34 UTC). While it was the early-morning hours for controllers at JPL, it was the middle of the day at Jezero crater on Mars. The autonomous flight lasted for a total of 39.1 seconds which saw the vehicle climb to about 10 feet (3 meters) above the ground, hover for about 30 seconds and then slowly descend back to the surface for a safe landing.
Commands for the flight were sent to the spacecraft the day before and confirmation the outcome did not arrive until about 6:46 a.m. EDT (10:46 UTC). This was because once the sequence was completed, the helicopter and Perseverance rover, which carried Ingenuity to the red planet, had to uplink the data to a satellite orbiting Mars. That satellite then had to relay the information back to JPL through the Deep Space Network, a series of ground-based satellite dishes placed around Earth.
Going forward, controllers at JPL plan to make several more powered flights each incrementally longer than the one before it.
The goal of these experimental flights is to pave the way for the next generation of rotorcraft vehicles spacecraft could one day fly on Mars.
“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,” Zurbuchen said in a NASA press release. “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.”
Getting Ingenuity in the air
In the days leading up to Ingenuity’s historic first flight, the helicopter was unloaded from the bottom of the Perseverance rover where it was stowed in a folded position inside a cargo box. Once it was fully unfolded from its stowed position, the rover “dropped” the craft from a height of about four inches onto the surface of Mars.
From there, the rover had to quickly move away from the helicopter in order for Ingenuity’s onboard solar panels to have an opportunity to begin charging.
Scientists on the ground at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California decided to capitalize on the opportunity by using Perseverance’s onboard robotic arm and camera to take a “selfie” with both the Rover and Ingenuity in the background. This was the first time two separate craft have been photographed on another planet.
Flight controllers at JPL had to make sure that every system on Ingenuity was performing completely nominally before the first flight. This included ensuring the vehicle could survive a cold Martian night, charge autonomously using its solar panel and spinning up the rotor blades while still on the surface.
While a low-speed spin test was successful, when engineers tried a high-speed spin test on April 9, an unexpected “watchdog” timer issue prevented the helicopter from transitioning to “flight mode” in order to perform the test.
Engineers worked on two solutions for this problem, both of which were verified for use. One involved modifying and reinstalling existing flight control software, which JPL said has been stable and healthy for close to two years. The other was to adjust the command sequence to slightly alter the timing of the “flight mode” transition. The former option was chosen as it was the least-disruptive path forward.
According to an April 17 mission update, “from testing this technique on Ingenuity over the last few days, we know this approach is likely to allow us to transition to flight mode and prepare for lift-off about 85% of the time. This solution leaves the helicopter safe if the transition to flight mode is not completed.”
The final spin-up test occurred April 16 and involved the two rotors onboard the helicopter, each measuring about four feet (1.2 meters) in length, being whirled up to about 2,500 rotations per minute — about five times faster than that of a typical helicopter on Earth.
Challenges of flight on Mars
Flight on Mars in particular is challenging for a number of reasons, but the main one is the thickness of the atmosphere, which is about 1% as dense as Earths.
Because of that, Ingenuity had to be as light as possible. The helicopter has a mass of 1.8 kilograms. As such it would weigh about 4 pounds on Earth. In the low Martian gravity environment, it weighs about 1.5 pounds.
Even so, the rotor blades still required some 2,500 rotations per minute in order to get airborne. That also requires a lot of power. Aboard Ingenuity are lithium-ion batteries that give enough energy for about 90 seconds of flight.
According to JPL, each flight requires an average of about 350 watts of power.
In the coming days, Ingenuity is expected to fly higher and farther. Ultimately, it is designed to fly up to 15 feet (5 meters) in altitude with a range of about 980 feet (300 meters).
As the mission is a technology demonstration, its mission isn’t expected to last longer than about 30 days. It’s goal is to provide valuable data to engineers on Earth for future Mars helicopters.
Video courtesy of NASA
Having a life-long interest in crewed space flight, Desforges’ passion materialized on a family vacation in 1999 when he was able see the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-96. Since then, Desforges has been an enthusiast of space exploration efforts. He lived in Orlando, Florida for a year, during which time he had the opportunity to witness the flights of the historic CRS-4 and EFT-1 missions in person at Cape Canaveral. He earned his Private Pilot Certificate in 2017, holds a degree in Aviation Management, and currently works as an Operations Analyst in the aviation industry in Georgia.