Ingenuity: The First Powered Flight on Mars

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter on the belly of the Perseverance rover, ready to be dropped off at the helicopter’s deployment location. Photo by NASA.

Ingenuity, which landed on Mars in February 2021, is the first powered aircraft to take place on Mars. Exploring Mars from the air gives scientists a unique perspective: they will be able to survey Mars’ geology in ways never attempted before.

The Perseverance Rover has recently made headlines as the most recent rover to be sent to the red planet. Its main objective is to detect signs of life and to collect rock and soil samples. However, rovers can’t go into areas that are too steep or slippery, so Perseverance didn’t make this venture alone: attached to its belly was the Mars Helicopter Ingenuity, an autonomous aircraft only 19 inches in height with a 4-foot rotor system wingspan. Ingenuity, along with Perseverance, was launched July 30th, 2020 and landed on Mars on February 18th, 2021. 

Ingenuity’s mission is completely separate from Perseverance and experimental in nature. Once Perseverance finds a reasonable helipad location, Ingenuity will be released and then perform a series of test flights over the next 30 Martian days, beginning in early April. Months after landing on the Martian surface, Ingenuity will test powered flight in the Martian atmosphere for the first time ever. This is groundbreaking because Mars has about one-third of Earth’s gravity, yet its atmosphere is 15 times as thick, making it difficult to generate lift.

Ingenuity has two other objectives. The first is to demonstrate miniaturized flying technology, which required scientists to  shrink onboard computers and electronics so Ingenuity would be light enough to be able to take off. The second objective is to show that Ingenuity can operate autonomously. Once Ingenuity has received commands from Earth, which are relayed through Perseverance, every flight will be performed without real-time input from mission controllers. 

The first flight on April 19th, 2021 took Ingenuity off a few feet from the ground and held it in the air for 20-30 seconds before landing. After this first powered flight in the atmosphere of Mars, further test flights will occur, incrementally increasing in both distance and altitude. 

GIF of Ingenuity’s first flight on Mars. By NASA.

Ingenuity is breaking milestones and is becoming a key part of the future of Mars exploration. How Ingenuity performs during the test flights will inform other decisions about small helicopters for future missions on Mars, as there are many ways that a small helicopter could be used on Mars. Helicopters could perform as a support to rovers, acting as robotic scouts to survey the Martian terrain from above, or as standalone crafts that could carry instrument payloads. In the future, helicopters may also assist astronauts in exploring Mars, accessing difficult-to-reach places.

This article was edited by Cat Kim and Lydia Guertin.