Earlier today, at about 11am Mars time, the Ingenuity Mars Helicoptersuccessfully completed its very first flight on Mars. The little helicopter, which is about the size of a box of tissues, did exactly what it was supposed to do, ascending vertically to 3 meters, hovering for 30 seconds, pivoting towards the Perseverance rover, and then landing again, for a total flight time of about 40 seconds.
With this flight, Ingenuity’s mission is officially a success, opening up the skies of Mars to autonomous robots that can explore farther, faster than ever before.
What data has helicopter sent back to Earth so far?
The first data products to make it back confirmed that Ingenuity is safe and healthy, which was the most important thing. As far as the actual flight went, the helicopter initially sent back confirmations of each of its flight phases, including an altimeter plot, showing that it started its mission on the ground, ascended, hovered, descended, and ended its flight in good enough shape to transmit back to Earth via Perseverance as a relay.
Data showing the flight trajectory from Ingenuity.Screenshot: NASA TV
We’ve also seen the first picture from Ingenuity’s downward-facing navigation camera, along with a few frames of animation from Perseverance showing the flight itself.
Ingenuity’s first flight as seen from the Perseverance rover, about 100 meters away. These are still frames that are stitched together to make a video, which is why the flight looks short.Screen Capture: NASATV
When will there be more pictures and video?
More data should be arriving back at Earth over the course of the day today.
Wait, wasn’t this supposed to have happened a week ago?
The first flight attempt was originally scheduled for April 12, but on April 9, a high-speed spin test revealed a command sequencing issue that JPL needed some extra time to diagnose and fix. This solution worked 85% of the time, and failed safely, which was good enough for the attempt today.
What does Ingenuity do next?
The clock is ticking on Ingenuity’s 30 day mission window, so there will be a lot more happening over the next few weeks. Here’s JPL’s tentative plan for the next several flights:
Flight Test No. 2 could be expanded to include climbing to 16 feet (5 meters) and then flying horizontally for a few feet (meters), flying horizontally back to descend, and landing within the airfield. Total flight time could be up to 90 seconds. Images from the helicopter’s navigation camera will later be used by project team members on Earth to evaluate the helicopter’s navigation performance.
If the second experimental test flight is a success, the goals of Flight Test No. 3 could be expanded to test the helicopter’s ability to fly farther and faster–up to 160 feet (50 meters) from the airfield and then return. Total flight time could be up to 90 seconds.
If the project timeline allows for Flight Tests No. 4 and 5, the goals and flight plans will be based on data returned from the first three tests. The flights could further explore Ingenuity’s aerial capabilities, including flying at a time of day where higher winds are expected and traveling farther downrange with more changes in altitude, heading, and airspeed.
A photo of Ingenuity taken by Perseverance after the helicopter's pre-flight rotor spin test.Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU
[ Mars 2020 ]
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.