On April 19th, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter completed a quick test flight on Mars, making it the first powered aircraft to fly on another planet. The small drone overcame several hurdles during its flight, including harsh winds, thin Martian air, and a recently-patched software bug.
Ingenuity is a relatively small drone that weighs just four pounds and folds down to the size of an ironing board. It hitched a ride to Mars on the Perseverance rover, and was scheduled to make its first flight on April 11th.
But NASA had to delay Ingenuity’s first flight due to a flaw in its 800,000 lines of code. The bug affected Ingenuity’s autopilot software and went unnoticed during NASA’s restrained pre-mission tests. Ingenuity’s blades spin five times faster than that of a typical helicopter to accommodate Mars’ thin atmosphere, and the drone would tear itself apart if tested at full speed on Earth.
A remote software update fixed Ingenuity’s flawed code in time for its April 19th test flight. Despite unexpected wind speeds between 13 and 45 MPH, the drone managed to fly 10 feet above the Martian surface and hover for 30 seconds. NASA didn’t know if the test was successful until data trickled back from Mars, nearly 16 hours after the flight was scheduled. The space agency then dubbed Ingenuity’s flight zone “Wright Brothers Field” to honor the pioneers of flight here on Earth.
Future Ingenuity flights will run only slightly longer than 30 seconds. The drone has a 90-second flight time and can only stray 160 feet from the Perseverance rover. But the fact that it can fly on Mars at all is very impressive, and proves that unique design can overcome the difficult Martian atmosphere. Future missions could include more elaborate aircraft, and hey, maybe we’ll get some fancy footage of a drone zooming through Martian canyons.