Ingenuity, NASA's Mars helicopter, takes off on the world's first powered flight.


The aerial exploration of Mars has begun.

NASA's Ingenuity helicopter took off on Mars early this morning (April 19), making history as the first powered flight on a planet other than Earth.

The 4-pound (1.8 kilogram) chopper was set to lift off from the floor of Mars' Jezero Crater at 12:31 a.m. EDT (0431 GMT) today, rise to a maximum height of 10 feet (3 meters), and land after approximately 40 seconds in the air.

The data came down from Ingenuity — from its far larger partner, NASA's Perseverance rover — at around 6:15 a.m. EDT (1015 GMT) that the little rotorcraft had reached its targets. The first photo from Ingenuity revealed the shadow of the helicopter on the Martian surface below, while the Perseverance rover captured spectacular footage of the historic flight.

Ingenuity has flown for the first time, the first powered aircraft flight on another world! As he verified telemetry at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, Ingenuity's chief pilot Hvard Grip said.

Even though today's flight was brief, it could be game-changing, paving the way for future Martian aircraft exploration. Future Mars missions will use choppers as scouts for rovers or data collectors in their own right, thanks to Ingenuity's pioneering work, NASA officials have said.


During its groundbreaking first flight on April 19, 2021, the Ingenuity Mars helicopter captured a picture of the vehicle's shadow on the surface of the Red Planet. (Photo courtesy of NASA TV)

Pioneering Martian flight


Ingenuity's $85 million mission is a technology showcase, designed to prove that driven, controlled flight is possible on the Red Planet. This was far from a foregone conclusion; the Martian atmosphere is just 1% as thick as Earth's at sea level, leaving no air for helicopter blades to push against. The downside of Mars' lower gravitational force, which is just 38% as heavy as Earth's, outweighs the advantages that aircraft derive from it.

On Feb. 18, Ingenuity, which was attached to Perseverance's belly, flew to Mars and landed inside Jezero with the $2.7 billion rover. The solar-powered rotorcraft arrived on the crater floor earlier this month and started preparing for its historic month-long flight campaign, which was scheduled to start on April 11.

From a control room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the core team behind Ingenuity's pioneering flight witnessed the Mars flight. As the flight's success was announced, they stood up, raised their hands, and cheered.

NASA Mars Helicopter Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung (left) celebrates with her team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California after seeing photographs from the first operational flight on Mars by the Ingenuity helicopter on April 19, 2021 (Image credit: NASA TV)

Ingenuity's project manager, MiMi Aung, triumphantly ripped up her contingency speech (written in case of failure) and praised Ingenuity's historic feat on Mars. She's previously stated that each planet only gets one first trip.


Humans have now successfully flown a rotorcraft on another world! As her teammates applauded, Aung said. We've been dreaming about our Wright Brothers moment on Mars for a long time, and now it's finally here.

Orville and Wilbur Wright, who conducted the first heavier-than-air flight on Earth in 1903, were honored by NASA by naming Ingenuity's Martian airfield the Wright Brothers Field. To commemorate the occasion, a piece of their Wright Flyer plane has been put on Ingenuity.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, much of Ingenuity's mission team was forced to watch the event via WebEx video conference. Aung congratulated them all by sending them virtual hugs.

The Mars Helicopter Ingenuity hovers above the Martian surface during its historic first flight on April 19, 2021, as captured by NASA's Perseverance rover on Mars. (Photo courtesy of NASA TV)

The aim of Ingenuity's flight campaign is not to collect data; it is equipped with a black-and-white navigation camera and a 13-megapixel color imager, but no scientific instruments. Its sole purpose is to demonstrate that the feat is feasible.

The 19-inch-tall (48-centimeter) helicopter breezed through the preflight tests until the final one on April 9, when it attempted a high-speed spin test of the craft's twin, 4-foot-long (1.2-meter) rotors. Although Ingenuity remained on the ground, those carbon-fiber blades were expected to rotate at about 2,400 revolutions per minute, the rotational velocity they achieve during operational flight. However, the chopper's "watchdog timer" malfunctioned, and it failed to transition into flight mode as needed by the test.

The mission team initially postponed the flight until April 14, then postponed it again to further investigate the problem. Aung declared on Saturday (April 17) that the team was sure it had found a solution — an alteration to the command sequence beamed from Earth — and that the first flight will take place today.

The Mars Helicopter Ingenuity team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, celebrates after seeing a view of the drone's first flight on Mars captured by the Perseverance rover on April 19, 2021. (Photo courtesy of NASA TV)

This approach is the least disruptive to a helicopter that had been performing as intended before we discovered the watchdog problem. Saturday, Aung wrote a blog post about it. It is the simplest since we do not need to adjust its configuration.

As evidenced by this morning's flight, the repair worked. With the updated command sequence, Ingenuity flew as intended, becoming the first robot to fly through Mars' thin, dusty skies.

Don't mistake Ingenuity for a mindless drone based on this command-heavy approach; the little robot is capable of considerable autonomy. Ingenuity, for example, gets its bearings in real time during flight by analyzing images taken by its navigation camera.

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