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NASA's Ingenuity Makes Historic First Powered Flight On Mars

NOEL KING, HOST:

Had you been at Jezero Crater on Mars earlier today, you would have seen something remarkable - a little helicopter about the size of a tissue box on long spindly legs lifting off from the floor of the crater, hovering about 10 feet in the air and then coming back down. That, folks, was history - the first powered flight on Mars. NPR's Joe Palca has been monitoring that flight from here on Earth. Good morning, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So tell us about what happened this morning.

PALCA: Well, it was really something. About 3:30 in the morning Eastern Time, which was about high noon on Mars at the landing site, this little helicopter executed a series of commands that the Earth had sent it earlier the day before, actually. But the flight all took place autonomously. And then the helicopter had to send the data to the rover and the rover had to send the data to an orbiting satellite around Mars. And the orbiting satellite around Mars had to send the data to the Deep Space Network and the Deep Space Network had to send it to JPL. And that's when people learned what happened. So around 6:45 Eastern Time, JPL engineer Michael Starch let the team in the control room know the data was arriving.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL STARCH: This is downlink. We are beginning to fetch data from Mars 2020.

PALCA: And the key piece of data that was coming from the helicopter was something from the altimeter, which would show whether the helicopter made it up into the air. And about six minutes after the data started coming in, the helicopter's Earth-based pilot, Havard Grip, gave the announcement people had been waiting for.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAVARD GRIP: Altimeter data confirmed.

(CHEERING)

GRIP: The Ingenuity has performed its first flight, the first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet.

KING: (Laughter) I love the excitement. I just do. What was the helicopter doing on Mars to begin with?

PALCA: Well, it was a - it's an experimental - it's a demonstration project. It's not part of the science mission of the rover, but it was strapped to the rover. It flew to Mars on the rover. It landed with the rover. The rover dropped it off and drove away. And then it was about 60 yards away when it was taking pictures back toward - 60 yards - 60 feet, something like that. Anyway, it was taking pictures of the rover - of the flight as it occurred.

KING: And then NASA sent those pictures back just a little while ago. And what do they show?

PALCA: Oh, it's just - it's really something. So I mentioned that the flight took place around noon on Mars. And as the helicopter went up in the air, it took a shot facing straight down. And you can see the helicopter's shadow on the surface of Mars, which it looks like a little insect. It's got these two rotor blades. So it's like four wings essentially sticking out with four little legs. It's really something of a picture. And the other interesting picture was from the rover, which was, as I say, positioned a ways away, taking a shot of it in the air and then on the ground. So it was real.

KING: It was real. And so what is next for the little helicopter that could?

PALCA: Well, first flight was up and down. The next flight, they might try going a little higher, a little bit sideways. They're just so thrilled. They're going to try some more later in the month.

KING: Is it hard for a helicopter to fly on Mars?

PALCA: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. The air is very thin there, and you need to have a helicopter with extremely big rotor blades. It's the only way you'll get it off the ground.

KING: And yet they got it done. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. Thanks, Joe.

PALCA: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLAR HEAVY'S "THE FALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.