The Wright Stuff: First Powered Flight On Mars Is A Success

When you stop to think about the history of flight, it really is amazing that the first successful flight the Wright brothers made on a North Carolina beach to Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon spanned a mere 66 years. That we were able to understand and apply the principles of aerodynamics well enough to advance from delicate wood and canvas structures to rockets powerful enough to escape from the gravity well that had trapped us for eons is a powerful testament to human ingenuity and the drive to explore.

Ingenuity has again won the day in the history of flight, this time literally as the namesake helicopter that tagged along on the Mars 2020 mission has successfully flown over the Red Planet. The flight lasted a mere 40 seconds, but proved that controlled, powered flight is possible on Mars, a planet with an atmosphere that’s as thin as the air is at 100,000 feet (30 km) above sea level on Earth. It’s an historic accomplishment, and the engineering behind it is worth a deeper look.

The Long Deployment

Ingenuity is what’s known as a “technology demonstrator,” which is essentially an ancillary mission that tags along with the main scientific payloads supporting the primary mission. In many ways, tech demonstrators are afterthoughts, forced to fit into odd nooks and crannies and to impact the primary science missions as little as possible. Still, Ingenuity was afforded a considerable slice of the resources offered by the Perseverance rover, and a large chunk of mission time — 30 sols, or Martian days — to complete everything it could.

While it seems like 30 sols would be plenty of time to deploy, test, and fly Ingenuity, it’s actually a pretty tight schedule — nothing is easy when you’re doing it on Mars, after all. With that in mind, NASA front-loaded Perseverance’s schedule with Ingenuity operations, planning to knock out everything that the Ingenuity team had planned before proceeding onto the main mission of exploring Jezero crater for signs of ancient life.

The first thing Perseverance had to do was deploy Ingenuity onto the Martian surface. We’ve seen footage of the deployment tests, which gave the impression that birthing the helicopter onto the surface would be the work of a few minutes at most. But again, nothing about exploring another planet is easy, and with only one chance to get the first flight on another planet right, the Ingenuity team took no chances and made the deployment a painstaking process that took more than three weeks to complete.

Job one was to jettison the debris shield that cocooned Ingenuity during its ride across space and onto the surface of Mars. Once cameras confirmed that the cover had dropped off cleanly and that the aircraft had suffered no visible damage, Perseverance drove a considerable distance to the designated drop-off area. The flight team was obviously very picky about the terrain in the flight zone, as rocks could cause a problem for the helicopter while landing autonomously.

Once a suitable area was located, the long process of deploying the stowed helicopter to the surface began. Ingenuity was shipped on its side, with two of its four landing gear folded up. The aircraft was released from its locks and swung down into a vertical position, partly under the force of gravity and partly with the help of a small motor. After locking into the vertical position, the two folded legs were released, springing down into position thanks to the shock-absorbing mechanisms attaching them to the hull of the aircraft.

Finally, when the team was sure that everything checked out and the drop zone was clear of obstructions, the command was sent to deploy Ingenuity to the surface. It dropped few inches and landed cleanly on the surface on April 6. This was a big moment for the flight team — Ingenuity was now on its own, untethered from the power and data connections to Perseverance. The tiny aircraft would now have to survive solely on the power generated by its small solar panel and stored in its batteries, and have to prove that it could keep itself warm enough during the harsh Martian nights.

While the Ingenuity team was doing these checks, the rover moved about 4 meters away, exposing the helicopter’s solar panels to the sun for the first time. And like any tourist, Perseverance took a selfie with its former passenger in the background before heading off to its designated overwatch location, which is on a small rise about 60 meters from the drop-off location.

Since deployment, Ingenuity has been busy running system tests to make sure it’s ready to fly. The test results, including unlocking the rotor blades and doing a low-speed rotation test on April 8, were promising enough that NASA announced that the first flight would occur sometime on April 11, pending one final test — the full-speed rotor spin-up. While the rotors did manage to spin up to full speed on April 9, the flight software on the helicopter tripped a watchdog timer while trying to switch from pre-flight mode to flight mode. This caused a delay in the first flight attempt, at first by just a few days.

But as the new date for the first flight came and went, it was announced that a rewrite of the flight software would be necessary. Of course, this required extensive testing and subsequent upload of the new software to Ingenuity. While waiting for the bandwidth to accomplish these tasks, the flight team was able to complete the full-speed spin-up test, allowing them to schedule the first flight attempt for the early morning hours of April 19. The flight plan was very modest — take off, rise slowly to an altitude of 3 meters, hover in place for 30 seconds before yawing, and touch back down in the same place it took off from.

First Flight

For as exciting as the first flight of Ingenuity was, the coverage of it was somewhat anticlimactic, mainly due to the fact that the flight had already occurred, and all that was left was waiting for the data to pour in. So there was a fair amount of waiting around as the team stared at their screens. But eventually enough data came back to show that Ingenuity has spun up, ascended, hovered, descended, landed, and spun down without any incidents.

Things got more exciting when the plot of altimeter data came in, showing that Ingenuity had gotten up to just over three meters above the surface for a few seconds. But then the first images rolled in. A single black and white still from the down-looking navigation camera showed the shadow of Ingenuity cast onto the Martian surface, neatly framed by Perseverance’s wheel tracks. And shortly thereafter, images from the cameras on Perseverance came back, clearly showing the whole flight.

Now that the goal of proving that controlled flight on Mars is possible has been met, Ingenuity still has a host of experiments to conduct. MiMi Aung, project manager for Ingenuity, said that after the first flight, longer, more complex flights would be undertaken. There are hard limits to those flight profiles, of course — Ingenuity won’t be buzzing over to where Perseverance is parked, for example. But the helicopter will fly higher and farther than its first flight, testing the limits of the aircraft.

JPL engineers attach a swatch of muslin from the 1903 Wright Flyer to Ingenuity. Source: NASA/JPL

And while it wasn’t explicitly stated, it was certainly implied that at some point, Ingenuity may just end up crashing due to the flight operation team exceeding the limits of what the aircraft can handle. That’s fitting, in a way — Ingenuity was always on a one-way trip into the history of flight, and finding out what the limits of operating in the Martian atmosphere are is probably as good an end as any for the first Martian aircraft to meet.

Still, it might be nice if Ingenuity finishes its final flight with a nice touchdown, ready to be picked up by some future explorer and placed in some future Martian air and space museum, like the Wright Flyer is displayed today. If that happens, the circle will be complete, because tucked away aboard Ingenuity, wrapped around a cable under the solar panel, is a tiny swatch of muslin from the wing of the Flyer.

59 thoughts on “The Wright Stuff: First Powered Flight On Mars Is A Success

        1. “Mr. Towns, Mr. Towns, a toy plane is something you wind up and it rolls along the floor. A model airplane is something totally different. Model airplanes have been flying successfully, more than years before the Wright brothers ever got off the ground. They were not toy planes.” – Heinrich; Flight of the Phoenix (1965 film)

  1. Ingenuity was billed from the start as a low-cost, high-risk, high-benefit project. The risk was flying autonomously in an alien environment that couldn’t really be emulated on Earth, so no argument there. The benefit is really sketchy, though: for some reason, having essentially a model helicopter fly a few meters resonates with people far more than much more technically challenging and scientifically valuable experiments, so it’s mostly a PR thing. And then low cost? Just look at how Ingenuity is dwarfed by Perseverance. And then they have this team jammed into a conference room! Sure, there’s the signature “Dare Great Things” slogan on the wall, but that’s probably on every wall at NASA these days. Usually who you see in the mission control darkrooms are department leads, who are each on the phone with their team, but in this case, I think that was literally the whole team in that conference room.

    One big thing NASA learned from Apollo is that PR counts, and I think NASA definitely got their money’s worth out of Ingenuitty. And the project team has earned bragging rights that they’ll have for life.

    Damn good job.

    1. Benefit seems clear as day to me. In the future, recon UAVs will be just as important on Mars as they are on Earth. Imaging from orbital satellites will only get you so far, flying craft that can scan/photograph the surface from a few meters up will be able to cover much more ground than any robotic rover.

      Whether they are scouting ahead for their rover mothership or creating hyper-accurate height/obstacle maps for eventual human landings, this success means we’ll be seeing more rotorcraft on Mars in the future.

    2. You seem to be slightly antagonistic. Not sure why. The ability to fly even a few feet would allow course info not easily available to the rover. If it was powered via the rover, it could be more useful as it could eliminate the solar cells and replace them with instruments. That is just 1 excellent use. getting to inaccessible locations is another.

      As for PR work, that is necessary and I think good for all in that it helps to show people where the money is spent and in an interesting and useful way.

      Personally, I hope they have an extended mission where it tries to keep up with the rover and even guide it.

      I worked for JPL for 20 years and small teams were often created to do non-essential test and demo work. It was usually staffed with young and new grads and provided test-by-fire training that really helps talent float to the top. I was on the Voyager mission control team for 3 encounters and then got a position as mission controller for a tiny satellite (AMPTE) which gave me the experience to become a mission controller (ACE) for Magellan and Galileo S/C.

      1. I know what you mean. I don’t mean to disparage the demonstration at all. I was grinning ear-to-ear throughout the flight, so yeah, it appeals to me as well. It is the coolest thing I’ve seen from NASA in a while. But what it is NOT is science. I mean, it got me excited, and it got a lot of other people excited, and that’s a good thing. And maybe something will come of it – this may very well shape the design of future exploratory spacecraft. Also, yeah, I did see that the whole team seemed to be in their twenties, so more power to them – just getting to do a project that ended up on a Mars rover is a big thing, and having it get past some design glitches without self-destructing had to have been pretty dramatic. I once spent a couple weeks in a training class that was also attended by a couple of NASA engineers, and they told me how the project process works there: If you want a project to be done, you write up a proposal. You pitch what you hope it will achieve, what it will cost, and what the risks are. And if your proposal is selected, you get to design something that goes into space. I don’t remember the details about what happens to engineers who are between projects, but it seems like there’s a sort of publish-or-perish that works there, similar to academia. If you aren’t pitching a project, you’re pitching your skills to someone whose project has been green-lit, and who is recruiting.

        I guess the thing that bothers me is that the thing people are excited about seems so pedestrian.

        1. I think you’re being unfair to the less blue sky sciences. The control systems and engineering for flying an autonomous helicopter drone on Mars are perhaps not an end to themselves, but they’ll allow future Mars missions to operate in different ways. Imagine, for example, all those sample containers Perseverance is dropping, they could be picked up by flying drones. Or a real-time fast response science platform, imagine the Mars global surveyor sees something interesting and being able to dispatch a flying drone with a suite of sensors. The possibilities for science from flight on Mars are significant.

    3. The benefits are pretty huge, its proof we can ‘guess’ educatedly on what is needed to fly in such foreign environments and succeed – which proves our computer flight controllers and flow simulators etc are close to correct – aerodynamics isn’t a mathematicality solved problem, its still just best guess algorithmic or statistical number crunching game. And eventually no doubt the data on how close to the model it flies will be released, which will further improve the guesses.

      Should also prove highly valuable to get a good close up to the ground second perspective – the satellites just don’t give that angle, so assuming it stays working its bound to be useful plotting the main rovers course.

    4. Hoping some time in 2121, a blimp called lighter than some is the first powered flight in Jupiter, and has tied on it a hand me down piece of muslin which was on the wright flyer, ingenuity and…

  2. That down-looking navcam image struck me as odd. It shows barely any blur in those blades. They are rotating at 2400 rpm — 40 revs/second, 14 degrees per millisecond. You’d expect some blur.

    There is only 1-2 degrees of blur in those blade shadows, implying a frame exposure time of only 1/10,000 second.

    It’s high noon, but the sun is half as bright as here, so implies larger than f/2.8 lens and higher than ISO1000 sensitivity — certainly doable.

    1. Here’s a link to the specs of Mastcam-Z that was used:

      It’s apparently between f/7.0 and f/9.7.
      However, the pixels are relatively large (7.4 micrometer), which should increase sensitivity, right?

      They specify gain and such, but I don’t know how these translate to ISO.

      And, if i read it right, the lowest exposure time is .1 ms, which matches your statement.

    2. I noticed that too. As you say, probably high sensitivity and a fast lens. I suppose it would be necessarily fast if it is doing ground recognition while the ‘copter is moving…

      1. Ah, excellent. Thanks. Your Google-fu is better than mine.
        Kind of hilarious/cool they’re using such a simple little camera for that, but it ticks all the boxes: small, light, low power, sensitive, fast, well characterized, mature, and a global shutter.

        And you can pick up replacements on Amazon for $35. The shipping though :-)

          1. I’m with Steven on this one… streaming technology sends frames of video. Each frame is a still image by itself until strung together with the others. I don’t see how the Mars video transfers are any different from other video.

    1. Makes me wonder: According to The Martian (great book), the surface of Mars is “International Waters” – no drone laws here. But since we do everything possible not to contaminate its surface or the atmosphere with our own bacteria (and trash), maybe it is more like a “National Park” or a “National Conservation Area”. In that case, flying drones on Mars can get expensive quickly :P

  3. Building a thin-air helicopter has other challenges besides the aerodynamics: motor overheating! Yes, on cold Mars. An engineer pointed this out on one of the forums:

    “First is heat transfer. The thin atmosphere gives almost no cooling. The Ingenuity motors have parts made of beryllium to act as a heatsink, but even then I think overheating is actually the limiting factor on flight duration, not battery energy.

    Second is aeroelasticity. There’s a similarity parameter called the Lock Number (that I hadn’t heard of until I started working with rotor people on Dragonfly) that is important in assessing the structural damping of blade flexing. Again, the thin atmosphere is the problem, it provides no damping so blade oscillations can build up.

    Both of these issues get worse as you scale up. So at the NIAC / Powerpoint / student-final-year-project level, yes you can mock out neat-looking hexacopters and stuff in the 10-20 kg range and they look like they should fly, but once you really start poking into the thermal and mechanical design, I bet even those would not work out.”

  4. Neat stuff. And the video of the flight from Perseverance perspective is up on the NASA site… For the skeptics among us who worry about blurring of blades and sun angles, and … such :) . Not exactly a flight like the Wright Brothers of a winged aircraft…. but still neat to see something hovering on another planet!

  5. Well, if it can lift itself off the ground, it can certainly blow some dust off some solar panels!
    Just paid for itself.

    Why on earth they didn’t think to put some kind of wipers on those things I’ll never know.

    1. The dust is electrostatically charged and abrasive: mechanical stuff was ruled out compared to repulsion/vibration a while ago. For rovers it’s pointless anymore since solar rovers are too limited at this point. For landers I don’t know why they risked it with InSight.

      1. Seems kind of funny how we have the amazing ability to fly a helicopter remotely on another planet yet we are still unable to edit a comment posted only a few moments a go.

    1. BTW, since the ‘copter weighs more that 250 grams, I hope the pilots are registered with the US feds. Unlike our Earth where bird strikes are an orders of magnitude greater threat to manned aircraft than “drones,” on Mars this drone presents the only manmade hazard to aviation. That there are no other aircraft to hit is irrelevant. The reach of the FAA is infinite. 😎

      1. All that stuff declared independence once they landed on Mars. “We cast off the chains to Mother Earth, and declare the free state of Mars” .

        Of course, if those machines find life on Mars, that life might have a say on things.

    1. Mars has 1/3 the gravity of earth, 1/100th the air pressure and on a completely different composition, A different temperature, to begin with.
      Then, your cheap Woolworth rc toy copter has a typically unskilled operator a couple feet away, so signal for rev up/down and go left/right are for all intents and purposes instantaneous, out there, time to send something is in the order of tens of minutes, so, they needed to pack enough brainpower either on Ingenuity itself or on Perseverance to be able to do all the corrections your average kid doesn’t do when they crash their toy with the ancient ming vase you got as a wedding gift.
      Finally, your cheap RC toy has the equivalent of an unlimited power source at your wall plug, while Ingenuity needs to harvest energy from a solar panel that doesn’t even produce as much as it would here on earth because it is farther away.
      Probably a dozen more things, but I am not that much into it.

  6. flight dynamics are different because of thin atmosphere and different gravity. Also interested in knowing how they plan to do navigation without GPS. Must be some kind of inertial nav system. An autonomous flight without a human to intervene in real time is quite a trick without satellite navigation systems.

    1. Inertial sensors for stability, celestial nav (the sun) and the visible horizon for pointing (and I’m sure to drift-correct the inertial sensor). And I guess (based on just the name) the down-looking nav camera for actual navigation.

  7. Colleagues of mine literally just tested a battery in a vacuum chamber at this pressure. My brain can’t comprehend that they just flew a ‘copter in that same environment. Jeez.

    (Yes, that’s a terrible vacuum, it’s intentional, it’s for a balloon, not a spacecraft)

    1. Actually NASA ad a team of 6 engineers working 8 hours to doctor the skipped frames in and downgrade the video from 8k 120hz to it’s public domain format in a convincing way as to troll the flat earthers.

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