NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has made a historic flight on Mars, marking the first powered 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 guard more than 200 feet (65 metres) 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.
"Ingenuity has performed its first flight — the first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet!"
— NASA (@NASA) April 19, 2021
The $85m helicopter demo was considered a high risk, yet high reward.
“Each world gets only one first flight,” project manager MiMi Aung noted earlier this month.
Speaking on a NASA webcast early on 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 287 million kilometres (178 million miles) away.
Adding to their anxiety was a software error that 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 centre 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 colour images of the helicopter descending back to the surface, taken by Perseverance, “the best host little Ingenuity could ever hope for”, Aung said, thanking everyone.
You wouldn’t believe what I just saw.
— NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) April 19, 2021