The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter made history after performing the first powered flight on another planet on April 19, 2021. (Credit: NASA/JPL)
A triumphant team of scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory took a moment to reflect Monday as they continued pouring over mountains of data from the successful maiden voyage of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, which hours earlier became the first aircraft to perform a powered flight on another world.
Engineers received confirmation at 3:46 a.m. that the experimental, autonomous 4-pound helicopter had successfully taken off, hovered in position about 10 feet above the Martian ground for 30 seconds, and gently touched back down.
“This really is a Wright Brothers moment,” acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said through a grin. “It’s the start of a whole new kind of planetary exploration, and we’ll build on Ingenuity’s success to see how we can deploy this capability on future Mars missions.”
The “airfield” where Ingenuity made its first flight has been dubbed “Wright Brothers Field,” in honor of the inventors of the airplane.
The primary mission of Ingenuity was to serve as a “technology demonstration” to prove such a flight was even possible in the thin atmosphere of Mars, which is only about 1% as dense as that of Earth.
The small helicopters hitched a ride to the Red Planet affixed to the belly of the Perseverance Mars Rover, which touched down in February.
Jurczyk commended the Ingenuity and Perseverance teams who have worked for years to make Monday’s accomplishment a reality.
“You all have exemplified what it means to be part of this amazing NASA team,” he said. “You came up with this dream and these innovative ideas, and you overcame all of the challenges and made it happen. I could not be more proud of the team.”
JPL Director Michael Watkins credited the tenacity and talents of JPL staff with the success.
“It has been a great day here at JPL, and we are proud that we continue to be at the forefront of daring mighty things in planetary exploration,” he said.
Ingenuity Project Manager MiMi Aung said she couldn’t help but watch footage of the flight over and over again.
“Our team has been working over six years, some even longer, toward the dream of experimenting the first-ever flight at Mars, and this morning, our dream came true,” she said.
Up to four increasingly lengthy flights are planned in the coming weeks.
“We really want to push the rotorcraft flights to the limits and really learn and get information back from that,” Aung said.