One Minute Off Mars

Photo credit: JPL-CALTECH/NASA

April 19th, 2021- NASA’s Ingenuity rover makes first flight, lifting off Mars for the first time. For over six years, NASA has been working on bringing Ingenuity’s flight on Mars a reality. The helicopter is 1.6ft tall, has four legs and a fuselage, pretty basic but all that’s needed. Inside the fuselage are the batteries, heaters, and sensors, all together roughly the size of a tissue box. It’s biggest pieces are the carbon fiber, foam filled rotor blades at four feet in length each. On the very top is a solar panel for recharging the batteries. The helicopters launch site was also carefully chosen. It’s a relatively rock free area measuring roughly thirty-three feet, by thirty three feet. On April 3rd the helicopter was released from the rover onto the airfield from the Perseverance Rover.

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter took this photo of its own shadow while hovering about three meters off the surface. Photo credit: JPL-CALTECH/NASA

There are up to five flights planned for the little helicopter who could. Each one slightly more ambitious than the next with the hopes of gaining information to further a fleet of helicopters on the surface of Mars. The team has until May to get these flights over with, because then it has to move on with it’s primary mission of collecting rock samples that may possibly hold evidence of ancient Martian life.

At 6:35 Am Edt, all was silent in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena California. Then wild cheers erupted as data started coming in to the control room. Ingenuity has made it’s first big test, hovering for about forty seconds above the Red Planet. This marks the first flight of a spacecraft from another planet. In the early hours of April 19th those carbon fiber rotor blades begun to spin, and lifted the helicopter off the thin Martian surface. Rising about three meters off the ground, it pivoted to look at the NASA Perseverance rover, took a picture and gently landed back down on the Red Planet.

“Technology demonstrations are really important for all of us,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “It’s taking a tool we haven’t been able to use and putting it in the box of tools we have available for all of our missions at Mars.” Even though the gravity on Mars is about one third that of the Earth the air density is less than one percent of Earth’s air at sea level. A way to imagine it is this, the air on Mars is thinner than about three times the height of Mt. Everest. That’s why the helicopter has spent the last five years being put through a slew of tests to simulate the atmosphere it would have to fly in. An Entire Mars simulation chamber was made so that it could be emptied of Earth air and pumped full of carbon dioxide at Mars like densities. Today all those years of tests have paid off, as Ingenuity has flown, and history made.