Move over Wright brothers and make room in the pantheon of aviation firsts. Today, Apri; 19, 2021, Ingenuity, the NASA helicopter that deployed from the belly of the Perseverance Mars lander, made the first controlled, powered flight on a heavenly body other than Earth.

The solar-powered helicopter became airborne at 3:34 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, 12:33 Local Mean Solar Time (Mars time). Ingenuity climbed to its prescribed maximum altitude of 10 feet (3 meters) and maintained a stable hover for 30 seconds. It then descended, touching back down on the surface of Mars after logging a total of 39.1 seconds of flight.

Cameras on Perseverance captured the brief but historic flight.

Ingenuity weighs only about 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms) and is propelled by four carbon-fiber blades arranged into two rotors that spin in opposite directions at around 2,400 rpm. Ingenuity has a video camera but no scientific instruments.

Mars has a significantly lower gravity – about one-third of Earth’s. That makes flight easier. On the other hand, Mars’ extremely thin atmosphere with only 1% the pressure at the surface compared to our planet makes prop-powered flight much harder. There are relatively few air molecules for Ingenuity’s two 4-foot-wide (1.2-meter-wide) rotors can interact to achieve flight.

pia23962-1041 (1)
Perseverance and Ingenuity Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Because of the lag involved in sending data from Mars to Earth, the flight test was controlled by onboard guidance, navigation, and control systems. Ingenuity cannot be flown remotely by a pilot on Earth.

NASA hasn’t revealed specific plans for the helicopter. It seems likely that after flight tests are completed it would be tasked with scouting for safe routes through the terrain and interesting objects for Perseverance to investigate.

The Wright brothers need not feel bad about being one upped by a drone. As an homage to the two daring bicycle makers from Dayton, Ohio, this first airfield on another world will be known as Wright Brothers Field.

I’m raising a toast to Ingenuity and its history making flight and wishing it success on all future missions. Cheers!