Lift off! First flight on Mars launches new way to explore worlds

Alexandra Witze in Nature:

NASA has pulled off the first powered flight on another world. Ingenuity, the robot rotorcraft that is part of the agency’s Perseverance mission, lifted off from the surface of Mars on 19 April, in a 39.1-second flight that is a landmark in interplanetary aviation. “We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” says MiMi Aung, the project’s lead engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Ingenuity’s short test flight is the off-Earth equivalent of the Wright Brothers piloting their aeroplane above the coastal dunes at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. In tribute, the helicopter carries a postage-stamp-sized piece of muslin fabric from the Wright Brothers’ plane. “Each world gets only one first flight,” says Aung.

The flight came after a one-week delay, because software issues kept the helicopter from transitioning into flight mode two days ahead of a planned flight attempt on 11 April. Today, at 12:34 a.m. US Pacific time, Ingenuity successfully spun its counter-rotating carbon-fibre blades at more than 2,400 revolutions per minute to give it the lift it needed to rise 3 metres into the air. The US$85-million drone hovered there, and then, in a planned manoeuvre, turned 96 degrees and descended safely back to the Martian surface. “This is just the first great flight,” says Aung.

More here.