NASA made history on Monday when its Ingenuity helicopter successfully completed its first flight on Mars.
In the space agency’s first flight on another planet, the helicopter rose about 10 feet off the ground and hovered in the air for 30 seconds for a combined total flight time of 39 seconds. The short event marked a “major milestone,” according to NASA, as “the very first powered flight in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars.”
Back on Earth, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California waited for data and images and erupted in applause when video of the helicopter’s flight finally arrived. NASA expects to release more data about the historic flight over the coming days, as more data comes back from Mars.
NASA may conduct up to five additional helicopter flights over the coming weeks, each one a bit more ambitious. Information from the flights could be used to plan Martian drone missions in the coming years that could proceed astronauts landing on the planet.
Flying a helicopter on Mars is a bit more complicated than flying a helicopter on Earth. Not only did the helicopter need to be light enough to fly in an atmosphere with 1% the thickness of that on Earth, the blades needed to spin at five times the speed of a normal Earth helicopter. On top of all that, the machine needed to be durable enough to withstand the cold, harsh weather on Mars. It took more than six years to develop the 19-inch Ingenuity, capable of meeting all necessary requirements.
The helicopter arrived on Mars back in February when the Perseverance rover landed.
The helicopter flight is one that NASA has tried to connect to the Wright Brothers’ first flight on Earth. Ingenuity carried a bit of fabric from the wing of the 1903 Wright Flyer, which made history in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In honor of the Earth flight, the Martian airfield from which Ingenuity took off has now been named “Wright Brothers Field.”
Cailey Rizzo is a contributing writer for Travel + Leisure, currently based in Brooklyn. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, or at caileyrizzo.com.