NASA’s Ingenuity Completes First Flight on Mars

Craft was autonomously controlled from Earth, nearly 180 million miles away.

NASA's Ingenuity has a camera on board that captured the craft's shadow as it lifted off.NASA/JPL-Caltech

One hundred and seventeen years ago the Wright Brothers successfully conducted the first powered flight on Earth. Today, NASA reported its solar-powered Ingenuity helicopter, part of its Mars Perseverance rover that arrived on the planet in February, successfully lifted off from the red planet at 3:34 a.m. EST, marking it, “the first aircraft in history to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet,” the agency said in a news release.

NASA said Ingenuity climbed to roughly 10 feet (3 meters) above the surface and entered a stable hover for about 30 seconds. The flight lasted a total of 39.1 seconds. The Wright Brothers first flight in 1903 with Orville at the controls lasted just 12 seconds. “The 19.3-inch-tall (49-centimeter-tall) Ingenuity Mars Helicopter contains no science instruments inside its tissue-box-size fuselage. Instead, the 4-pound (1.8-kg) rotorcraft is intended to demonstrate whether future exploration of the Red Planet could include an aerial perspective,” said the agency in the release. The differences between Mars and Earth are vast. NASA said the Martian atmosphere is as thin as if the helicopter were departing from Earth at a density altitude of about 100,000 feet. Martian gravity is also just one-third that of Earth. Ingenuity arrived on Mars in February inside the Perseverance rover. In honor of the Wright Brothers, Ingenuity lifted off with a small piece of the original Wright Flyer attached to its belly.

The Wall Street Journal reported that NASA contractor AeroVironment, the company that created Ingenuity for the space agency, spoke to the inherent risks of today’s flight, because they were “unable to test the vehicle in the environment in which it would fly. The Ingenuity was tested at the Jet Propulsion Lab’s space simulator, a large vacuum chamber filled with CO2 gas to simulate the Martian atmosphere.” The counter-rotating helicopter’s four-foot blades built of a carbon fiber wrapped around foam made them light but rigid—specifications necessary to operate in the harsh Martian climate.