NASA’s experimental helicopter Ingenuity rose into the thin air above the dusty red surface of Mars on Monday, achieving the first powered flight by an aircraft on another planet.
The triumph was hailed* as a Wright brothers moment. The mini 1.8kg flying craft even carried a bit of wing fabric from the Wright Flyer that made similar history at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, US in 1903.
It was a brief hop — just 39 seconds and 3m — but accomplished* all the major milestones*.
“Goosebumps. It looks just the way we had tested,” project manager MiMi Aung said as she watched the flight video during a later briefing. “Absolutely beautiful flight. I don’t think I can ever stop watching it over and over again.”
Flight controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, US declared success after receiving the data and images via the Perseverance rover. Ingenuity hitched a ride to Mars on Perseverance, clinging to the rover’s belly when it touched down in an ancient river delta in February.
The $110 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward.
Scientists cheered the news from around the world, even from space, and the White House* offered its congratulations.
“A whole new way to explore the alien terrain in our solar system is now at our disposal,” Nottingham Trent University astronomer Daniel Brown said from England.
This first test flight — with more to come by Ingenuity, the next as soon as Thursday — holds great promise, Dr Brown noted. Future helicopters could serve as scouts for rovers, and eventually astronauts, in difficult, dangerous places.
Ingenuity has provided a third dimension to planetary exploration and “freed us from the surface now forever,” said JPL director, Michael Watkins.
Ground controllers had to wait more than three hours before learning whether the preprogrammed flight had succeeded 287 million kilometres away. The first attempt had been delayed a week because of a software error.
When the news finally came, the operations centre filled with applause, cheers and laughter. More followed when the first black and white photo from Ingenuity appeared, showing the helicopter’s shadow as it hovered above the surface of Mars.
“The shadow of greatness, #MarsHelicopter first flight on another world complete!” NASA astronaut Victor Glover tweeted from the International Space Station.
Next came stunning colour video of the copter’s clean landing, taken by Perseverance, “the best host little Ingenuity could ever hope for,” Ms Aung said in thanking everyone.
NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter goes down in history after successful flight on Mars
The helicopter hovered for 30 seconds at its intended altitude of 3m, and spent 39 seconds airborne, more than three times longer than the first successful flight of the Wright Flyer, which lasted a mere 12 seconds on December 17, 1903.
To achieve all this, the helicopter’s twin, counter-rotating rotor blades needed to spin at 2500 revolutions a minute — five times faster than on Earth. With an atmosphere just 1 per cent the density of Earth’s, engineers had to build a helicopter light enough — with blades spinning fast enough — to generate this otherworldly lift. The Martian wind was relatively gentle on Monday: between 7kmh to 22kmh.
More than six years in the making, Ingenuity is just 49cm tall, a spindly* four-legged chopper. Its fuselage, containing all the batteries, heaters and sensors, is the size of a tissue box. The carbon-fibre, foam-filled rotors are the biggest pieces: Each pair stretches 1.2m tip to tip.
Ingenuity also had to be sturdy enough to withstand the Martian wind, and is topped with a solar panel for recharging the batteries, crucial for surviving the minus-90C Martian nights.
NASA chose a flat, relatively rock-free patch for Ingenuity’s airfield. Following Monday’s success, NASA named the area for the Wright brothers.
“While these two iconic moments in aviation history may be separated by time and … million miles of space, they now will forever be linked,” NASA’s science missions chief Thomas Zurbuchen announced.
Up to five increasingly ambitious flights are planned, and they could lead the way to a fleet of Martian drones in decades to come, providing aerial views, transporting packages and serving as lookouts for human crews. On Earth, the technology could enable helicopters to reach new heights, doing things such as more easily navigating the Himalayas.
Ingenuity’s team has until the beginning of May to complete the test flights so that the rover can get on with its main mission: collecting rock samples that could hold evidence of past Martian life, for return to Earth a decade from now.
The team plans to test the helicopter’s limits, possibly even wrecking the craft, leaving it to rest in place forever, having sent its data back home.
Until then, Perseverance will keep tabs on Ingenuity. Flight engineers affectionately call them Percy and Ginny.
“Big sister’s watching,” said Malin Space Science Systems’ Elsa Jensen, the rover’s lead camera operator.
- hailed: praise enthusiastically
- accomplished: achieved
- milestones: significant stages or events
- White House: where the President of the US lives and works
- spindly: long or tall and thin
- On which planet did the helicopter fly?
- What is the name of the helicopter?
- What is the name of the rover?
- Who were the Wright brothers? Why are they famous?
- Who or what are Percy and Ginny?
LISTEN TO THIS STORY
1. Ingenuity’s first flight
After reading the Kids News article about the Ingenuity helicopter’s first flight, work with a partner to complete a table with three columns. Label your columns:
- What I know about Mars
- What I learnt about the Ingenuity helicopter
- What I would like to know about Mars or Ingenuity helicopter and Perseverance, the rover
Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Personal and social
2. Extension: To-do list
There have been a lot of firsts for human exploration of Mars this year. But every time we tick off another achievement we think of other things we’d like to do on Mars!
Make a Mars To-Do List. Down the left side of a page, make a list of 10 specific things you would like humans to achieve on Mars in your lifetime, in order (from one to 10) of how you think they should or could be achieved, with number one being the thing to do first. Try not to be too general (not just exploring, for instance, but where or how).
Choose one thing on your to-do list and on the right side of your page brainstorm some detail about your chosen task, making notes about some of the difficulties in achieving the task and how you think we could or should overcome these difficulties. Include quick sketches or detail of inventions that could help humans succeed in this task.
Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Critical and Creative Thinking, Science
I Spy Nouns
Nouns are places, names (of people and objects), and time (months or days of the week).
How many nouns can you find in the article?
Can you sort them into places, names and time?
Pick three nouns and add an adjective (describing word) to the nouns.