An image taken by NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter during its first flight April 19, looking down at the surface and its shadow. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

WASHINGTON — NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter successfully performed the first powered aircraft flight on another planet April 19, briefing hovering above the surface of Mars.

The 1.8-kilogram helicopter performed the flight at 3:34 a.m. Eastern, but data from the flight, relayed through the Perseverance rover and another Mars orbiter, arrived at Earth a little more than three hours later.

An initial analysis of the data by the project team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory indicates the flight went as expected, with Ingenuity taking off, flying to an altitude of about three meters and hovering before landing 39.1 seconds later.

“We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at JPL, said in the control room moments after engineers confirmed the successful flight. “We together flew at Mars and we together now have our Wright Brothers moment.”

The telemetry included one image taken from a camera on Ingenuity, looking down on the surface and capturing its shadow. Perseverance, monitoring the flight from about 65 meters away, also returned a set of images showing the helicopter in flight.

You wouldn’t believe what I just saw.

More images and video to come…#MarsHelicopter

— NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) April 19, 2021

The flight is the first of as many as five scheduled during a month-long test campaign. Later flights will be increasingly ambitious, going to altitudes of up to five meters and traveling dozens of meters downrange and back.

This flight was scheduled for April 11 but postponed because of a problem with a “watchdog” command timer during preparations for a final pre-flight test April 8. While the project considered updating the flight software to correct the problem, they elected instead to adjust the timing of commands, concluding from testing that it would allow the helicopter to take off 85% of the time.

“We picked the solution that really is the most simple, most straightforward option,” Aung said on NASA TV just before the flight. Had it not worked, she said the team would have tried again the next day.

Ingenuity is a technology demonstration that NASA argues could be used on future missions to provide a third dimension for exploration of Mars. “It’s taking a tool that we haven’t been able to use and putting in the box of tools that is available for all of our missions going forward at Mars,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science. “It opens up new doors.”

No future missions at Mars currently plan to use a rotorcraft like Ingenuity. However, that technology will be used for a much larger vehicle, Dragonfly, to allow it to fly in the dense atmosphere of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Dragonfly is scheduled for launch in 2027.

Immediately after the flight, Zurbuchen announced the “airfield” on Mars that is hosting Ingenuity would be called Wright Brothers Field, “in recognition of the ingenuity and innovation that continue to propel exploration.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...