NASA’s helicopter flight on Mars has made history.Here’s how Garmin in Kansas City helped:

The first flight of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter on Mars on Monday made history as the first controlled flight on another planet. But it also represents Garmin’s first foray into the extraterrestrial market.

The helicopter mounted on the Perseverance Rover, which landed on Mars in February, contained a small sensor sold by Olathe-based Garmin International.Called LIDAR-Lite v3, Lightweight sensors are essentially altimeters that measure distance. For NASA helicopters, sensors measure how high the aircraft can be lifted above the surface of Mars.

But on Earth, sensors that sell for $ 130 are used in crossbows to help hunters and rangefinders to help golfers.

Best known as a pioneer in the GPS market, Garmin has created a huge number of electronic products across the aviation, marine and personal fitness markets. But space engineering is completely new.

Garmin’s design engineer, Bob Lewis, who developed the sensor, said the company’s technology could open the door to space.

“”For example, we hope that over time, products that are basically available to the average enthusiast will be available in a variety of space applications, “he says.

Ten years ago, Lewis co-founded Pulsed Light. Sold to Garmin in 2016.. He said his optical path sensor was originally created for use in robotics, but has since been used in a variety of applications.

“It was created in my den 10 years ago, so it’s a bit cool just to see how it moved over the years,” he said. “And there is also the fact that this is the first time a helicopter has been flown to another planet. It’s really exciting.”

The Mars Perseverance Rover was built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Vehicles were sent to the Red Planet to look for signs of ancient life.. In addition to collecting data on Mars’ climate and geology, Rover was designed to collect and package rock samples that will be returned to Earth for further research in later missions.

Helicopter ingenuity It was created to demonstrate the ability of powered and controlled flight in the extreme conditions of Mars. Mars has a very thin atmosphere and temperature that can plummet to -130 degrees Fahrenheit.

NASA basically bought a Garmin sensor off-the-shelf. The company didn’t know its intended use for some time as the space agency asked about how the sensor works in vacuum or at extreme temperatures.

“We didn’t really understand what they were trying to do,” Lewis said.

Garmin sells a small line of sensors. However, they are highly specialized products, not widely used appliances such as company fitness trackers and navigation devices.

“This isn’t something everyone can pick up and play with,” said Jon Seitz, Garmin’s technical lead design engineer. “We need to design this into a large system overall.

“There’s a kind of thrill when you see someone using it in the wild, but it’s a bit big thrill for NASA to pick it up, drive it into space, and put it on Mars.”