NASA did it: fly its little Ingenuity helicopter on Mars. This is the very first motorized flight ever attempted and successful on another planet. Once again, the American agency and its engineers are making history.
For several days, mission engineers had been preparing for the first attempt to fly the Ingenuity rotorcraft. The NASA had proposed a first test for April 8, then for April 11. Unfortunately, an issue recorded during a rotor test caused engineers to rethink Ingenuity’s flight software.
Concretely, the mission team, led by project manager MiMi Aung, worked on a fix involving the addition of some commands to the flight sequence. These changes obviously required extensive testing and validation before being sent to the helicopter.
With these successful maintenance operations, a first test flight was finally to be attempted this Monday morning at around 9:15 am (French time).
However, it took a few hours to find out if everything went well (or not), the time for the helicopter to transfer its data to Perseverance, which was to relay them to a Martian probe in orbit. This data was then sent to Earth before being picked up by NASA antennas.
A historic flight
During this first flight, Ingenuity amounted to a little more than 3 meters for a few seconds – activating its blades at about 2500 revolutions per minute (on Earth, those of helicopters turn at between 400 and 500 revolutions per minute) – before landing successfully. As evidenced by this historic photo taken by the rotorcraft, revealing its shadow cast on the ground:
Perseverance was also placed at a good distance to try to document the event (sounds and images). Here is a snapshot taken by the rover allowing us to appreciate Ingenuity above ground:
And here it is again after landing:
The Ingenuity team still has thirty days to attempt other, more ambitious flights over longer distances and higher altitudes.
What will happen next?
After these thirty days of test flights, Ingenuity will be abandoned in place, opening (hopefully) the way for other flying vehicles likely to integrate future missions. These machines could offer a unique point of view to astronauts by spotting crossing routes inaccessible by rovers. They could also allow the transport or recovery of small payloads.
The Perseverance rover will finally be able to focus on its main mission in the Jezero crater, namely to look for possible signs of past life.