LOS ANGELES (NewsNation Now) — NASA scored a 21st-century Wright Brothers moment on Monday as it sent a miniature helicopter buzzing over the surface of Mars in the first powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet.
“Altimeter data confirms that Ingenuity has performed its first flight, the first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet,” said the helicopter’s chief pilot back on Earth, Havard Grip, his voice breaking as his teammates erupted in cheers.
Flight controllers in California confirmed Ingenuity’s brief hop after receiving data via the Perseverance rover, which stood watch more than 200 feet (65 meters) away. Ingenuity hitched a ride to Mars on Perseverance, clinging to the rover’s belly upon their arrival in an ancient river delta in February.
The $85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward.
NASA’s twin-rotor, solar-powered helicopter Ingenuity was similarly reserved.
“Each world gets only one first flight,” project manager MiMi Aung noted earlier this month. Speaking on a NASA webcast early Monday, she called it the “ultimate dream.”
Aung and her team had to wait more than three excruciating hours before learning whether the pre-programmed flight had succeeded 178 million miles (287 million kilometers) away. Adding to their anxiety: A software error prevented the helicopter from lifting off a week earlier and had engineers scrambling to come up with a fix.
Applause, cheers and laughter erupted in the operations center when success was finally declared. More followed when the first black and white photo from Ingenuity appeared on their screens, showing its shadow as it hovered above the surface of Mars. Next came the stunning color images of the helicopter descending back to the surface, taken by Perseverance, “the best host little Ingenuity could ever hope for,” Aung said in thanking everyone.
Landmark achievements in science and technology can seem humble by conventional measurements. The Wright Brothers’ first controlled flight in the world of a motor-driven airplane, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903 covered just 120 feet in 12 seconds.
NASA itself is likening the experiment to the Wright Brothers’ feat 117 years ago, paying tribute to that modest but monumental first flight by having affixed a tiny swath of wing fabric from the original Wright flyer under Ingenuity’s solar panel.
NASA had been aiming for a 40-second flight, and while details were initially sparse, the craft hit all its targets: spin-up, takeoff, hover, descent and landing.
The robot rotorcraft was carried to the red planet strapped to the belly of NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance, a mobile astrobiology lab that touched down on Feb. 18 in Jezero Crater after a nearly seven-month journey through space.
The plan is for Ingenuity to undertake several additional, lengthier flights in the weeks ahead, though it will need to rest four to five days in between each to recharge its batteries. Prospects for future flights rest largely on a safe, four-point touchdown the first time.
“It doesn’t have a self-righting system, so if we do have a bad landing, that will be the end of the mission,” Aung said. An unexpectedly strong wind gust is one potential peril that could have spoiled the flight.
NASA hopes Ingenuity – a technology demonstration separate from Perseverance’s primary mission to search for traces of ancient microorganisms – paves the way for aerial surveillance of Mars and other destinations in the solar system, such as Venus or Saturn’s moon Titan.
While Mars possesses much less gravity to overcome than Earth, its atmosphere is just 1% as dense, presenting a special challenge for aerodynamic lift. To compensate, engineers equipped Ingenuity with rotor blades that are larger (4-feet-long) and spin more rapidly than would be needed on Earth for an aircraft of its size.
The design was successfully tested in vacuum chambers built at JPL to simulate Martian conditions, but that was no guarantee Ingenuity would fly on the red planet.
The small, lightweight aircraft passed an early crucial test by demonstrating it could withstand punishing cold, with nighttime temperatures dropping as low as 130 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, using solar power alone to recharge and keep internal components properly heated.
The planned flight was delayed for a week by a technical glitch during a test spin of the aircraft’s rotors on April 9.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.