The news: NASA flew an airplane to another planet for the first time. On Monday, April 19, Ingenuity, a 1.8-kilogram drone helicopter, lifted off from the surface of Mars, flew about three meters, then pivoted and hovered for 40 seconds. The historic moment was broadcast live on Youtube, and Ingenuity captured the photo above with one of its two cameras. “We can now say that human beings flew a rotorcraft to another planet,” MiMi Aung, head of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told a press conference. “We flew to Mars together, and now we have our Wright brothers’ moment,” she added, referring to the first powered airplane flight on Earth in 1903.
In fact, Ingenuity pays homage to this famous flight: a postage stamp-sized piece of material of the Wright brothers’ plane tucked away under its solar panel. (The Apollo crew also took a wood chip from the Wright Flyer, as it was named, to the moon in 1969.)
The details: The flight was a significant technical challenge, thanks to Mars’ frightening temperatures (nights can drop to -130 ° F / -90 ° C) and its incredibly thin atmosphere, barely 1% of Earth’s density. This meant that the ingenuity had to be light, with larger and faster rotor blades than would be needed to get a takeoff from Earth (although gravity on Mars, which is only about a third of that of Earth, played in its favor). The flight was originally scheduled to take place on April 11, but was delayed by software glitches.
Why this is important: As well as being a milestone for the exploration of Mars, the flight will also pave the way for engineers to think of new ways to explore other planets. Future drone helicopters could aid rovers or even astronauts by exploring places, exploring inaccessible areas and capturing images. Ingenuity will also contribute to the design of Dragonfly, a car-sized drone that NASA plans to send to Saturn’s moon Titan in 2027.
And after: Over the next few weeks, Ingenuity will perform four more flights, each lasting up to 90 seconds. Each is designed to further push the limits of Ingenuity’s capabilities. Ingenuity is only designed to last 30 Martian days and should stop working around May 4. Its final resting place will be in Jezero Crater as NASA shifts to the primary focus of its mission: to bring the Perseverance rover to study Mars for evidence of life.