Ten vertical feet and 40 seconds. Those are the two numbers that signify a horizon-bending shift in human ambition on Mars and beyond. With Ingenuity’s first hover on Mars early Monday morning, the proof-of-concept for future craft like it has been a resounding success.
A team of scientists and managers of the Ingenuity project sat down for a press conference this afternoon to share more details about the momentous accomplishment.
“What the Ingenuity team has done is given us the third dimension,” Michael Watkins, the director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said during the press conference. “They’ve freed us from the surface now forever.”
During the helicopter’s flight, the Perseverance rover was taking images from the nearby Van Zyl Overlook, like a proud parent at their kid’s school play. The rover also collected environmental data and acted as the operator switchboard for the helicopter, allowing the craft to get information back to NASA’s mission control on Earth.
The spunky little chopper stayed in the air nearly four times longer than the Wright brothers’ first flight (not that it’s a contest), and the Martian airfield has been named for the two pioneers in flight. In the new video above, you can see Ingenuity’s base rotate a little over 90 degrees in midair, like a model at the end of a runway. It is a drone (a “very special drone,” said Ingenuity chief engineer Bob Balaram), but you can’t say the craft doesn’t have a bit of attitude.
Confirmation of the successful flight hit NASA mission control in a cascade. The team first got news of spin-up, takeoff, hover, descent, touchdown, and spin-down — that caused a bit of excitement in the room. But the real moment of relief came when Ingenuity’s altimeter plot appeared on the room’s main screen. The line — straight up, a pause, then straight down — signified the helicopter’s vertical rise and prompt, but delicate, descent; in other words, success.
More images and video will become available as more data is received on Earth, but that’s not all that will come. MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager at JPL, said Ingenuity’s second flight could happen as soon as Thursday, and the parameters of later flights (there are four more currently planned) will be defined by the results of the second and third flights. The second flight plan is to rise about 1.83 m higher than this first journey, move about 1.83 m laterally, return to the original lateral position, and land. The third flight would rise to the same height but make a lateral there-and-back of about 45.72 m.
“In general terms, what we’re talking about here is going higher, going further, going faster, stretching the capabilities in those ways,” said Håvard Grip, chief pilot of Ingenuity at JPL, during the press conference. “Exactly how far in those directions is a discussion that we need to have.”
Interestingly, the helicopter doesn’t slow down on descent. Grip said the aircraft actually aims to constantly descend through the ground, and merely stops descending once it realises that it is on the ground and cannot descend any farther; Grip added that the team doesn’t want the helicopter hanging in the air any longer than they want it to. The helicopter team is operating on a tight schedule, as Perseverance rover needs to get on with its whole “finding extraterrestrial fossil life” mission elsewhere in Jezero Crater, so the next four flights will likely happen in the next two weeks, Aung said. Easy to forget that, as historic Ingenuity is, it is merely a side project to a much more important mission on Red Planet.
If those five flights are successful, NASA will have a tremendous amount of data helping them build a new generation of extraterrestrial helicopters. Being proof-of-concept, this aircraft isn’t meant to last very long. “Ultimately, we expect the helicopter will meet its limit,” Aung said. “We will be pushing the limit very deliberately.” Aung said the distance could be as far as half a mile.
If you’re impressed by the fact that Ingenuity hovered on Mars this morning, just wait until it’s zipping through the thin atmosphere, hopefully giving us sweeping aerial shots of a Martian land, Perseverance a mere blotch in the distance.