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Milestones:First powered flight on Mars

The newest Wright Brothers Field is on another planet

Its rotors spinning furiously in the thin Martian atmosphere, NASA’s Ingenuity made mankind’s first controlled flight on another planet in the early morning hours of April 19.
AOPA Pilot Briefing July 2021
Courtesy NASA

A small black-and-white image of the helicopter’s shadow was the first of many photographs and video beamed back across nearly 180 million miles. It took 16 minutes for the radio signals to travel across that gap, which is one reason why Ingenuity is fully autonomous. Engineers at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory gave the launch command; on-board systems executed the brief flight that began at 3:34 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (12:33 Local Mean Solar Time, or Mars time), lasting 39.1 seconds.

The helicopter, 19.3 inches tall with a takeoff weight of 4 pounds (on Earth), achieved its objectives, including a stable hover lasting 30 seconds 10 feet above the Martian soil. If that sounds unimpressive, consider that the atmospheric pressure on the surface of Mars is 0.095 pounds per square inch, compared to 14.7 per square inch on Earth. In effect, Ingenuity launched at an Earth-equivalent pressure altitude of more than 100,000 feet.

Ingenuity has a flight campaign ahead that its creators hope will demonstrate the feasibility of aerial exploration of Mars, and high-resolution photos and videos will document each step. While the Wright brothers had their hands full capturing even one image of their first flight, NASA has many cameras aboard Ingenuity and Perseverance. The rover was positioned 211 feet away from the delicate helicopter to document the maiden flight and report the results back to JPL engineers eagerly waiting for the debrief in Pasadena, California.

The aeronautics and space agency went all-in on the Wright brothers parallels since long before Perseverance departed Earth with Ingenuity stowed in its belly last July. A small swatch of muslin clipped from the lower-left wing of the Wright brothers Flyer 1 is secured with tape around a cable extending from the helicopter’s solar panel, with a dot of epoxy and white polyester cord providing further security for the artifact.

“Now, 117 years after the Wright brothers succeeded in making the first flight on our planet, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has succeeded in performing this amazing feat on another world,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science. “While these two iconic moments in aviation history may be separated by time and 173 million miles of space, they now will forever be linked. As an homage to the two innovative bicycle makers from Dayton, this first of many airfields on other worlds will now be known as Wright Brothers Field, in recognition of the ingenuity and innovation that continue to propel exploration.”

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Jim Moore

Jim Moore

Editor-Web Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.

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