Inside the flight operations center at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, engineers broke into applause when confirmation of the flight arrived, more than three hours after the flight, in a data burst that traveled 178 million miles from Mars to Earth.
The atmosphere in the room turned almost giddy when a still photo shot from the helicopter captured its shadow on the ground, followed by video of the aircraft’s flight, captured by the nearby Mars rover Perseverance.
“We can now say we’ve flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” MiMi Aung, NASA’s Ingenuity program manager, told the occupants of the flight control room, all masked to protect against the coronavirus. “We together flew on Mars. We together have our Wright brothers moment.”
She added that, “We don’t know from history what Orville and Wilbur [Wright] did after their first successful flight. But I imagine the two brothers hugged each other. Well, you know, I’m hugging you virtually.”
Scientists say the successful test could eventually help the space agency more quickly roam across Mars as it looks for signs of ancient life.
To make the brief flight, Ingenuity’s technology had to overcome Mars’s super-thin atmosphere — just 1 percent the density of Earth’s — which makes it more difficult for the helicopters’ blades, spinning at about 2,500 revolutions per minute, to generate lift.
It was a triumphant add-on to the main part of NASA’s latest Mars mission — the Perseverance rover, a car-sized vehicle that is set to explore a crater that once held water and could yield clues to the history of the planet and whether life ever existed there.
Ingenuity, with four spindly legs and a solar panel and costing about $80 million, made the long journey to Mars tucked in the rover’s undercarriage.
As a tribute to the Wright brothers, Ingenuity has a postage-sized bit of fabric from the brothers’ aircraft, known as the Flyer, attached to a cable under the solar panel.
If all goes according to plan, the helicopter could make as many as five flights in coming weeks, each one more ambitious than the last. The second, for example, would fly slightly higher, to 16 feet, and then horizontally for a little bit before returning to the landing site.
Aung told her to team to celebrate, to enjoy the moment, but added, “This is just a first flight. Let’s get back to work and have more flights.”
The flight was originally scheduled to occur last week. But during a test of the helicopter’s rotors there was a problem that prevented it from completing the test. Engineers at JPL were able to diagnose the problem and were confident in the fix.
But going into the flight Monday they said anything so difficult and audacious could easily run into problems.
“We’re doing everything we can to make it a success, but we also know that we may have to scrub and try again,” Aung wrote in a blog on NASA’s website before the flight. “In engineering, there is always uncertainty, but this is what makes working on advanced technology so exciting and rewarding.”