He managed! After much expectation, it is a postponement unexpected, the Ingenuity helicopter made its first flight in Mars and went down in history as the first rotor aircraft to fly on the surface of another planet.

With that, the way is open so that in future missions, manned or not, drones are used to assist in the exploration of the red planet, either to obtain aerial images of a location, or to explore inhospitable terrain with much more agility than using a rover.

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But and now? After the first flight, what happens to Ingenuity?

Deserved rest

After Monday's flight (19), Ingenuity will "rest" for a day while using a solar panel on its propellers to recharge its batteries.

Meanwhile, teams here on Earth will be receiving and analyzing all the images and telemetry data received to formulate a plan for the second flight, which should not happen before the next Thursday (22).

“If the helicopter survives the second test, the team will consider the best way to expand the scope of the tests”, said the US space agency, NASA. 

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More Ingenuity flights

From the moment the Perseverance rover landed on Mars, on February 18, started a window of 30 “suns” (as the days on Mars are called) for the Ingenuity team to perform up to five test flights. This Monday's flight took place on the 16th Sun, which means that there are two more weeks for the remaining flights to be carried out.

The idea is that each subsequent flight will be a little more complex than the previous one, with the expectation that in the fifth flight Ingenuity will be able to climb five meters in height, choose a location 50 meters from its starting point, move over there and land. The maximum duration of a flight is 90 seconds, limited by the batteries on board the helicopter.

Remember that all Ingenuity flights are autonomous, thanks to a powerful on-board computer based on a processor Qualcomm Snapdragon running Linux.

Currently, it takes 16 minutes for a radio signal to leave Earth and reach Mars, and another 16 minutes for it to return, which makes any kind of direct control impossible.

First “airport” off Earth

The takeoff location of Ingenuity on Mars was named by NASA as Wright Brothers Field and received the designation JZRO from ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization), as well as airports here on Earth. 

The helicopter won the IGY identifier and the INGENUITY “call sign”. Both will be officially registered in the next edition of the guide “Designators for Aircraft Operating Agencies, Aeronautical Authorities and Services”.

Ingenuity is “proof of concept”

NASA compares the flight of the Ingenuity to the first flight of the Wright brothers, aviation pioneers who took off with their “Wright Flyer” in 1903. The connection is stronger if we consider that the Ingenuity carries in its fuselage a piece of the canvas used to cover a of the wings of the Wright Flyer.

“117 years after the Wright brothers were able to make the first flight on our plant, NASA's Ingenuity helicopter was able to do the same thing in another world,” said Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's deputy administrator.

The helicopter is also compared to Sojourner, NASA's first rover on Mars, which arrived on the red planet on July 4, 1997 and paved the way for all later rovers, such as Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity and Perseverance.

Family portrait aboard the Perseverance rover mentions NASA's past missions
Plate on board the Perseverance rover mentions previous generations of NASA rovers

"Ingenuity is an experimental engineering test - we want to see if we can fly on Mars," said MiMi Aung, project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). With an atmosphere that is only 1% the density of ours, Mars is an aerodynamic challenge and required Ingenuity's rotors to rotate at 2.500 RPM, five times faster than a helicopter on Earth.

“There are no scientific instruments on board and no goals for obtaining scientific information. We are confident that all the engineering data that we want to obtain on the surface of Mars and above can be obtained within this window of 30 suns, ”recalls Aung.