The Ingenuity helicopter photographed on the red, rocky surface of Mars.

The helicopter faced a number of challenges to lift off, chiefly the thin atmosphere of Mars ©NASA/JPL-Caltech

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Why did NASA launch a helicopter on Mars?

On Monday 19 April, NASA made history by completing the first-ever powered, controlled flight on another planet, when the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter took off from the surface of Mars.

It is hoped that this short flight will pave the way that will ultimately transform how scientists explore distant worlds. 

Having landed on Mars in February 2021, the Mars Perseverance rover is packed with the most up-to-date technology the red planet has ever seen.

Not only was it equipped with a myriad of instruments designed to (among other functions) sample and collect rocks, search for life and test for oxygen production, it also carried a mini-helicopter.

The experimental aircraft was sent to Mars to test the feasibility of making the first-ever controlled, powered flight on another planet, which it successfully achieved on 19 April 2021.

Having taken off vertically and hovering for a total of 40 seconds during which it was able to snap a couple of extraordinary photographs, it climbed to its prescribed maximum altitude of three metres. 

A black and white photograph showing taken from Ingenuity looking down onto Mars showing the crafts shadow on the surface of Mars.

Ingenuity was airborne for 40 seconds, during which it was able to record its own shadow on the surface of Mars  ©NASA/JPL-Caltech

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's Associate Administrator for Science, says, '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. 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.'

This is an incredible moment in space exploration history and is paving the way for future flying probes on other worlds.

Why fly a helicopter on Mars?

There are a number of advantages to flying a vehicle over the surface of another planet, as opposed to using a rover.

Mars is a rocky planet, and this throws up issues when it comes to landing rovers. The site where they touch down has to be fully surveyed using satellites, to find the most suitable place for the rovers to land and allow for them to explore as much of the landscape as possible without getting stuck.

It is hoped that the technology used to get Ingenuity off the ground will pave the way for powered flight to add additional support to survey this rocky terrain in areas that rovers would normally find difficult to traverse. 


It is also hoped that helicopters could also allow scientists to study features on Mars that are simply impossible for rovers to access, such as the side of cliffs and high rocky outcrops. This could have the potential to deepen our understanding of the red planet.

'You can traverse places without being hindered by the terrain in the same way as a land-based vehicle is,' Havard Grip, Ingenuity's chief pilot, told the BBC.

'It could do scouting missions for future rovers, perhaps, or even for astronauts, and then we're also thinking about it in terms of the potential for carrying its own science instruments to places that are very hard to access.'

What's more, the maiden flight of Ingenuity could also help push forward the use of helicopters to survey other planets and moons in the solar system.

NASA has already announced that it will be sending a helicopter mission to Saturn's moon Titan. Aiming to arrive at the moon in the mid-2030s, the mission (known as Dragonfly) will face different challenges to Ingenuity.

Titan is the largest moon of Saturn and is known to be geologically active. In comparison to Mars's thin atmosphere, Titan's is much thicker and is probably composed of methane, ethane and other simple organic molecules.

This short hop by Ingenuity will open up a whole new way to study these distant worlds.